Every year our middle school classes receive letters through the local paper that other students have written to Santa. These letters come from schools of need and in these letters the young students request specific presents. Their teachers usually attach a note to these letters which indicates the author’s sizes just in case we can procure a winter coat or a pair of shoes for them as well as fulfilling their requests. Our students usually work in pairs or small groups to get and wrap these items.
This morning in advisory, we talked about this project. There was pointed discussion about how some kids last year did not put as much money or effort into the purchases as others in their group did. This felt unfair.
Some mentioned that it was really easy to participate because they just used their parents’ money to purchase these items. Sometimes, in fact, it was the parents who personally purchased these items themselves.
“Would it feel better if we actually used our own money? Does everybody get allowance?”
“I don’t get allowance. I work for the money I have.”
“And even if we do get an allowance, aren’t we still using our parents’ money?”
One student said her parent actually paid her for good grades. She had plans for being pretty flush. She said she could bankroll the rest of us.
“Really? That’s not the point.”
“But it really doesn’t make any difference to the kids who wrote these letters who is giving them the gifts. To them it doesn’t matter whether they came from someone who bankrolled the whole class or whether we had to raise the money to purchase them.”
“It’s a lot easier for the more economically privileged in this room to provide these Santa gifts. It is actually a burden for those of us who have fewer resources. Who is really making sacrifices here? This gift-giving seems a bit out of balance.”
One student of mine is Chinese and said that he did not participate in gift-giving in his own household and did not want to participate—that his parents never give him gifts. He celebrates Chinese New Year and that’s it. Plus he did not have any money.
“C’mon. Giving has nothing to do with whether you have been given gifts before. Besides, it’s like charity. You do that, don’t you?”
“OK. What if we volunteer our time somewhere instead?”
“We can still volunteer our time somewhere, but how are we feeling about participating in this project?”
“This is a good thing to do. It’s a form of charity. It is good to reach a bunch of kids who have it a lot worse than we do, especially at this time of year.”
“But they’re strangers. We never see them. We don’t even see them getting or opening the gifts.”
“Does it really make a difference to see the recipient to make giving meaningful?”
“It feels a lot better, but it’s not necessary, I guess.”
“What if the gifts the students ask for in these letters go against one’s values? What if the toy is produced in a factory in some country far away where workers are mistreated and paid low wages?”
“Or better yet, what if the workers who are making these toys are poor kids, probably even poorer, than the ones who are writing these letters?”
The rich irony of this last question hung heavily in the air of the classroom. Everyone got very quiet.
“Can we talk about this on Monday?”