Free Bikes, Free Enterprise, and Other Theories to Teach Poor Kids that “There ain’t No Free Lunch!”

During my second year as teaching-principal at a small rural school, the district school board hired a new superintendent, Joe Hanfield. He focused on organizing resources and curriculum and this resulted in a kind of coherent simplicity that I still appreciate. Joe also brought a leadership element that I had not seen in public school before. This leadership was in the form of a kind of moral slogan for the entire school community and especially for the children. His was, “Do Right!” It was short, eliminated any long lists of useless rules so cherished by some and engaged the students in a way I had not seen since arriving at the poverty-afflicted district. Teachers and principal alike could talk to children about their goals and behavior always starting or concluding with the question, “Are you going to ‘Do Right?’”

At the end of the year, the board promoted me to full principal at a larger elementary school based on Joe’s recommendation. My two-year experience as a teaching principal at a 7 classroom school apparently made me the best selection of all the many candidates! (In retrospect, it was probably because I was also the cheapest applicant). But still, I got the job with a modest raise. And I got my own school where I proudly wore my brogues (decision making shoes), grey slacks, blue blazer and power-necktie signaling my rank and importance to the entire community. Wherever I encountered unruly children or parents I could always ask, “Do you think we are ‘Doing Right?’” passionately guiding conversations towards positive outcomes.

The board members were very proud of their new superintendent. They had worked hard to hire him since they saw he was a principled man who got things done. But the board also had moral principles they wanted taught to the children. And these principles were not in the typical state textbooks and certainly not in the cafeteria where a great majority of the kids were served free or reduced price breakfast and lunch paid for by the federal government to help alleviate childhood malnutrition.

The entire idea of ‘free lunch’ was anathema to the principled small business owners who served on the school board. Instead they valued rugged individualism, hard work, self-reliance and American free enterprise. No free lunch! How could they, in good conscience teach kids that they could literally get a “free lunch?” After all, someone had worked to earn the money to pay the taxes that paid for the “free lunch.” How would the kids learn that success came from work, not from “free lunch?” Anything less would be raising kids to be state dependent failures thus betraying the great and unique national legacy of wealth creation in the USA. In the school world, this school board perspective translated to fund raising as a part of the curriculum; especially the kind of fundraising in which the kids were deeply involved, where they would learn their lesson about self-reliance and entrepreneurship.

Joe got this message loud and clear. We met about many things but he saw this topic as very important and directed me to quickly implement a fundraising program. The first hundred days of a new superintendent’s term are important and a home run early would really help him find next superintendent’s job at a larger and higher status district. And luckily, Joe had just the program for me.

I told him about the chocolate sales program at my previous school that was successful because the margin was high and the cost for prizes for the children who sold the most chocolate was very cheap. The problem was that the chocolate melted, and for many of the kids and families in poverty, the temptation to eat the chocolate or keep the money they got from selling it was too great. I saw more, and more volatile problems occurring at my new school from duplicating the chocolate sales program that was so successful at my smaller school.

Not to worry, Joe shared. He knew of an incredible Music Teacher from the Bay Area who had been laid off in the same economic downturn that inspired our board members to focus on the development of rugged individualism, self-reliance and entrepreneurship. This former music teacher was a genius at sales and could organize our kids to bring in as much as $5000 profit in a short, week-long fund raising campaign. I felt a few twinges of conscience about this kind of project but quickly put them aside. The prospect of getting so much money for our playground in such a short time was great. Anyway, I already had a goal for the money. The parent club and teachers had prioritized our future spending and agreed that a concrete track or mini roadway within the playground for kindergartners and first graders to ride their trikes on was to be the purpose of our fundraising.

The laid off music teacher, Randy Long was at my school the following week to meet with Joe and me and go over the entire program. His program beat the chocolate sales in many ways. Most importantly, there was nothing to sell that would melt, and the kids turned in checks or cash from canvasing their neighborhoods daily. They would sell magazine subscriptions and a catalog of other items imported from Hong Kong such as plastic Christmas candleholders or lovely flowered ashtrays or toys. These items had been carefully selected for high profit margin and popularity even though they were cheap enough for people with little money to buy. Randy would lead an assembly to motivate the entire school to get involved and explain the program.

Most importantly, Randy pointed out, the success of the entire process was based on my ability to get a great parent club mother to lead and manage the effort. And furthermore, Randy knew how to find this person. He called it. “The Thigh Theory of Management.” This meant I was to look for the mother who was attractive, but most important, a mother with good thighs. The thighs were a sign of sexiness and youth. Randy explained that the woman who possessed the beautiful thighs was in charge of herself. This kind of woman came back from pregnancy with self-discipline and a strong ego so her husband would not be tempted to bolt for greener pastures, as Randy said many did. If I could find this kind of woman to manage our fundraiser, he could guarantee I would net at least $5000.

Eagerly, I shared that we had just the mother he described. As a matter of fact, the paper had just written a big story about Susan in the weekly ‘human interest’ section and I showed it to Randy. The reporter described her background. A college degree in business, marriage to a successful husband, two beautiful children, purchase of a new house in the new middle class subdivision and her part time work in the local financial area of mortgage brokering. Most importantly, there was a photo of her with her family.

I saw a beautiful woman who fit the title of the story, “SuperMom.” She was tall, thin, yet shapely, always impeccably dressed, fashionably coiffed, showered people with her captivating smile, her mellifluous voice, and beneath the sheer of her skirt I could imagine, if not see directly, a pair of wonderfully shaped thighs.

Randy was stunned. “Sign her up quick, and I’ll do the rest,” he said. I called her and in a matter of a few minutes she agreed to help out, as befitted a SuperMom.

The ‘rest’ consisted of several meetings between Randy and SuperMom that I didn’t attend, as well as a school wide assembly in which I saw how Randy had become an incredible salesman. I loved school wide assemblies since it was an opportunity to tell kids about and recognize those who through their deeds followed our school motto to “Do Right.” The school board liked this, too, since it enhanced our development of young future citizens, and brought us more tightly together as a school community. The children sang the school song and most importantly learned how to listen and behave in a large group, no small accomplishment. We then normally moved on to the topic of the assembly such as a student play, the high school band, the fire department on home escape routes, or something else helpful. I wasn’t really prepared for the assembly that would introduce these kids to American free enterprise, self –reliance and rugged individualism.

The students filed in and sat on the floor of our multi-purpose room (cafeteria, lunch room, auditorium and gym) not knowing what the surprise assembly would bring. Randy began with music, singing with hand clapping, soft and loud. He also had a short movie and a motivational talk that focused on the prizes they could win by selling the most of the products. First prize was a girl’s or boy’s bike and he displayed one so all could see. Utilizing his music background he led the kids in a responsive chant that further increased their excitement.

“Do we love our school?”

“Yes!” shouted the kids, “We love our school!”

“Do we love our playground?”

Again they shouted, “Yes, we love our playground!”

“Do we love new bikes?” Randy pointed to the shiny new bike.

“Yes, we love new bikes!!” they cried in chorus.

And finally, “Does anyone here love money?”

And the kids shouted back, “Yes, we love money!”

And Randy threw out into the mass of kids play money bills taped one end to the next so they flew in streamers across the adoring and excited faces of the children.

“And you will earn money for your school!” shouted Randy. “Money, Money, Money!”

The kids shouted back, “Money, Money, Money!”

Back in class the last 30 minutes of the day were dedicated to passing out sales materials and a short sales training talk by the group of parents that SuperMom had recruited. Teachers were to collect the money that came back each day and encourage selling first thing every morning for a week when the parent helpers would collect. With that, the fundraising program was launched.

By the end of the week, as promised we had reached our goal of $5000 profit. I was amazed that this community had that much disposable income. Randy told me of course they did, since the fundraiser started at the beginning of the month when paychecks or welfare checks came in. He knew his business.

A little girl whose mother worked on the fundraising committee won the bike. She brought it proudly to school to the envy of the other kids, and school board members made a special trip to our campus to congratulate her on being the hard working, rugged individualist winner in this important school-wide exercise in free enterprise.

Joe and I had a beer with Randy to celebrate the success of the fundraising drive. I mentioned I owed a lot to our Supermom on whom so much had depended. Without missing a beat, Randy chimed in, “Best piece of ass I’ve had in a long time.”

Joe, the superintendent choked on his beer and cried out. “What? You screwed our Supermom?”

“Well, yeah,” said Randy. “That kind of goes with the territory.”

“Oh, shit,” said Joe, seeing his leadership and reputation crumbling in what could be the wake of a scandal. “You asshole!” he cursed at Randy.

“Don’t worry,” Randy reassured him (and me). They never tell about these one night or one afternoon stands, and I keep their secrets.”

So Randy blew out of town a huge success. Supermom told me the sales had actually topped $15,000 and Randy’s cut was about $7500 a few weeks later. She told me that she felt the project had been a wonderful addition to the school activities; and also that I should try to get Randy to come back again for a repeat performance. Joe continued to be nervous about the fact that Randy and Supermom had given free enterprise a new meaning but after a few months, there was no hint of scandal, the concrete roadway for trikes was installed and the school board began to talk about the next fundraiser.

Originally posted on June 5, 2016, at Ethnography.com