How the teaching-principal instituted business curriculum and was scolded by his mildly illiterate yet perceptive secretary.

During economic downturns, things changed for school board members, many of whom were local small business owners. Their emphasis on saving money in the district reserve rose dramatically since times were getting worse. Reserves climbed during these difficult times from the required 3% sometimes as high as 20% just in case, they argued, the state short changed the schools. And this was no mere fantasy. Sometimes the state did renege on its promises.

But the idea of saving money also translated into resentment for the public employees who didn’t suffer the ill effects of economic downturns. And this, in turn translated into a growing emphasis on “teaching children the value of a dollar.” I felt this was a disguised resentment recast as one of the great lessons of life. This especially was the case when it came to free lunch and breakfast. Some board members even wanted to cancel free lunch and breakfast since this kind of program, they asserted, taught kids that they could get something for nothing. One would often hear them say, ‘There’s no free lunch.”

And this strange mix of resentment and free enterprise ideology led such board members to recommend fundraising for the kids. Not fundraising for the basics such as books or pencils but fundraising for those obvious frivolous items such as playground equipment. Now educators saw play and playground activities in the era prior to the no-nonsense No Child Left Behind Act of 2002 as vital for social, emotional, and intellectual development. But when one’s own local business is suffering a significant downturn, it just didn’t’ seem right to deprive kids of the knowledge that work is more important than play, that money doesn’t grow on trees, and that you can’t be a rugged individualist American if someone is always just handing you something for nothing, especially a free lunch

Thus, if I as the principal wanted to get more or newer or safer playground equipment, then I’d better organize the kids into fundraising campaigns. This was not optional, the school board said. And when I came back to school from a meeting with the Supt and let the school secretary Joleen know about this new plan, she responded with a stoic but not completely detached look. She had opinions but would save them for now.

The playground equipment fundraiser took off with a basic business question: what was the profit margin in the stuff we would sell? Experienced fundraisers taught us that it was chocolate bars. You could get specially ordered, delicious gourmet chocolate bars branded with your school name printed on the wrapper, sell them for $2 each and make $1.50 per bar. The ones with almonds in them could be sold for $2.50 and you would make $1.75 per bar. This was a great product and a great program. Luckily it was February so the possibility of melting chocolate bars and disappearing profits was out of the picture. A parent from the parent club (also a small business family) spear-headed the project. Our 4th and 5th graders were outfitted with 10 bars each to sell in their neighborhoods door to door and to their friends and family. They were to bring the money back to us and then become eligible for a set of collective prizes: class pizza party or items for ‘fun and learning’ such as crayons or colored pencils with paper. It was a splendid little strategy of extortion! The whole effort would last for one week so the chocolate would go out and the money come back in a timely manner.

Things went well for the first three days as the money rolled in. The parent manager of the program dutifully collected envelopes full of cash from the working parents who drove up to the school with their kids. The bus kids also brought their envelopes with money back. The manager then deposited the loot in our special district account. But by day 4 some problems started to pop up. First, a heat wave struck. The temperature soared to 101 degrees. This meant that the chocolate that had not been returned would be melted and in no condition to sell.

On Friday when all the money or the left over chocolate was due, there were some kids who didn’t sell the candy and also didn’t return the unsold bars. Suddenly, this problem became my problem to solve. It was a situation that was bigger than lost money. The fact that this project was a hugely important part of the small business curriculum for which I might be held accountable hit home hard. How could the kids learn about business and becoming self-reliant individualists if they had a project that lost money?

By 10am the project manager had identified the 8 delinquent chocolate sellers and by noon she had made contact with all but one of them and their families. In each situation, the story was similar. The candy got lost. That was it. Who was to say it wasn’t lost? Of course we knew that the candy was eaten, or melted or sold, and the money kept by the family. The parent manager actually said this to one of the parents.

In about 5 minutes the father showed up outraged. He was dressed in logger boots, a tank top, old jeans and wore a fairly big buck knife on his belt that I thought might be associated with his missing finger before I remembered that missing fingers were signs of pride for mill workers. I welcomed him into my office where Joleen and I shared a small space. Joleen took one look at him and left.

He squatted on his haunches in the corner of the office like he was getting ready for a bar fight. “ ‘You sayin’ we stole the money?” he said angrily.

“No,” I said. “No one is saying that.”

“She done said it,” he responded, indicating the parent manager had made this insulting comment. “We give the chocolate to our kid and he brung it this morning. Just call my kid in here and we’ll cut this story down to size.”

We called 4th grade Cody into the office. Cody arrived with chocolate smeared all over his face and hands.

His dad roared at him in anger. “You done ‘et the candy, you little son of a bitch.

I’m going to whup you hard, boy.”

Cody started crying and without thinking I said, “Wait, lets check the records to see if Cody won his chocolate in the lottery.”

I had seen enough beaten kids to intervene here. I rummaged through some files and said, “Hey, this is amazing, Congratulations Cody. You get the chocolate for free!”

His dad changed his demeanor immediately.

“Well that’s lucky. We was always lucky in our family,” he said. “Grandpa won his stake in a poker game and bought the land we are livin’ on today. And now Cody won his chocolate. Damn boy, that’s fine!”

With that, they left. The hit to the profits was minimal, we were able to buy a new jungle gym and Cody didn’t get beaten. All in all, it was a good fundraiser.

Joleen was disgusted. In private she later said to me, “It ain’t right. Kid’s don’t need to sell on the street to fix up their playground. That be the job of them cheapskate business owners. Me, my brothers and sisters worked pickin’ fruit when we was little, and that wasn’t right neither. These kids, they come to school for learnin’, not to work for some candy company.”

Originally posted at Ethography.com in May 2016