Short term solutions have short term impacts.
Did you see the news story about the man who saw a little girl walking to school in the snow so he bought her mom a new car?
I hope you’re not nodding because I made that one up.
But these types of acts of generosity are always making headlines during the holiday season. And I’m a sucker for them too, tearing up when I hear about people giving away unimaginable amounts of time or money.
I always wonder if people who do these things are motivated by empathy or driven to seek attention. On my most optimistic days, I believe that there are just some people who are endowed with more compassion that the rest of us. When I’m feeling pessimistic, I wonder if they are hoping for Facebook likes or an invitation to be on the Ellen show.
Maybe it doesn’t matter
The Invisible Toll of Unmet Needs
I teach at a high school that has a significant number of students who qualify for the federal government’s Free and Reduced Lunch program.
The stories I hear from my students will squeeze your heart like a lemon. I’ve learned that I have to be careful how I talk about them so that I don’t upset my friends and family.
When you’re not in the thick of it, it can be shocking to hear about homeless students, or families who always keep the bathtub full because they don’t know when their water will be shut off or the parent who threw her daughters clothes into the street for cars to drive over.
But no matter where you live, I promise there are families and children struggling to get by. As a middle class, we do a good job veiling these needs and presenting a facade of caring by donating our used clothes to Goodwill and dropping a fiver in the Salvation Army bucket at the holidays.
And many of the people in these situations have become masters at blending in, not wanting to bring attention to their situations out of fear, habit or shame.
But I promise you, they’re there. Not admitting or acknowledging these problems doesn’t make them go away, it just buries them deeper.
Sometimes You Need to Care Less
We recently hired a new teacher at our school. When I checked in with her after several weeks on the job, I could see she was struggling.
Shaking her head, she asked, “How do you do it?”
She went on to tell me how hard it is for her to hear about kids who go home to an empty house, kids who have their electricity shut off, parents who are in prison or rehab and families who have many children and no income for holiday gifts.
It is hard. I feel exactly the same way.
It’s tempting to try to fix all of these problems. She told me about how she wanted to go to one student’s house and take him and his dad grocery shopping so she didn’t have to worry about them going hungry over the weekend.
She was thinking about cooking a dinner for another family and bringing it to them while the mom was in the hospital.
She had already given a pair of her old boots to a student who didn’t have any, but she was still feeling like she needed to do more.
It sounds harsh, but I told her she needed to stop caring so much.
It’s advice I still give myself when I see my kids leave school carrying a grocery sack of peanut butter, cheap pasta and red sauce and a few granola bars. Like many communities, our food pantry gives students supplemental food on Friday afternoons so that they can make it through the weekend.
On Sunday nights when I’m packing my own kids lunches with fresh fruits, I think about those peanut butter jars and hope that my students aren’t going to bed hungry.
I could probably make news headlines by filling big boxes with groceries and delivering them to their houses every Sunday afternoon. But I can’t do that because I don’t have the money and also because in order to face them all again on Monday, I need to recharge my batteries by relaxing, having fun and spending time with my own family.
So, cruel as it may sound, I try not to think about my students on the weekends.
Care less. Care less. Like the beat of a drum, I try to release thoughts of them — in the dark, hungry, anxious, scared — from my head.
By Caring Less, You Can Care Longer
If you’re thinking I’m a monster, read on so that I can change your mind.
I know that if I care less, I will be able to care for much longer.
By taking time away from my students to recharge my own batteries, I feel ready to tackle another week of school.
And after several days away, my students need to know that they can come in my classroom and I’ll greet them with kindness and empathy. I will do my best to make school interesting and fun for them, and I will work hard to help them learn useful skills that will help them grow into useful, self-sufficient adults.
I ride the waves of good days and bad days with them, stringing together conversations that are encouraging, honest and necessary to build solid, healthy relationships with them.
I push them to try new things and take on wild challenges. I have high expectations for them, but support them as they struggle to meet them. I take them seriously and do my best help them work through issues that they have at home and at school on their own.
And I’ll do it day after day after day. Year after year after year.
Sure, I’ll bake cookies from time to time, or pass on an few sweatshirts to a kid who needs them.
But you won’t see me swooping in with any grand headline grabbing gestures.
I won’t be paying someone’s rent, letting a student move into my spare bedroom or buying new winter coats for everyone in my school, and I advised the new teacher not to either.
I’m glad there are other people with the means and desire to do these things, and by all means, I hope they don’t stop.
But for me, I find great satisfaction in doing the daily work of showing up, doing my best, and pushing as hard as I can to move the needle just a little tiny bit each day.
And that I can do for a long time.