Coffee with Mimi

BY MIMI BECKER

It has been some months now since I was privileged to launch on this weekly adventure. Some might say I am a bit compulsive, but I decided early on to not begin an article with the word “I”. Consider it a form of New Year’s resolution, which as we all know tend to be broken or at least nudged. So, allow me to begin this story over.

I have a favor to ask.

As usual, it will take me a few words to get to it, but indulge me.

A few years ago in a classroom discussion revolving around civic responsibility and volunteerism, students were sharing ideas about a proposed service project. We brainstormed possibilities and made a list on the board. Initially, no idea was rejected, according to the rules of brainstorming. When we felt the list was sufficiently complete, categories were developed and criteria set forth for making the final decision.

Yes, cleaning up the Rain Forest was an admirable goal, but slightly impractical under the constraints of being, oh, you know, expensive to get to, as well as more than a day job.

Visiting nursing homes was also a wonderful idea, but none of the students were of legal driving age, although many offered to overlook that detail in the interest of the Senior Citizens. Middle School is a wonderful place to exist!

One by one the possibilities were eliminated until we were down to just a couple; reading to the Kindergarten students during lunch or picking up trash around the school property and up Main Street. The tide of public opinion was definitely flowing in the direction of picking up trash. The prospect of escaping the building for any reason was more enticing than giving up lunch social time to sit with squirrelly Kindergarteners. Altruism isn’t necessarily motivated by the noblest sentiments when you are 13.

There is always one in the bunch, though. Just before the moment of voting (and the bell), one student chimed in that he didn’t want to pick up trash, it wasn’t his job and after all, he didn’t put it there. Oh, the sticky wicket of civic responsibility.

With just seconds to spare, I am confronted with the teacher’s charge in life, recognizing and acting on the “teachable moment”. The bell rang and the die was cast although the students didn’t know it.

The next day I was ready. There were two issues to sort through. One, “Whose job is it?” and the other, “Whose responsibility is the problem?” In other words, where did the trash come from and who’s going to get rid of it?

The first question was not difficult for the students, or so they thought. There are school janitors and city employees who should take care of the trash. That’s what they are paid to do. The light still hadn’t dawned, but it’s early in the discussion.

The second question got a little testier. What sort of trash are we talking about? A stroll around the grounds yielded some immediate evidence consisting of fast food wrappers and cups, empty cigarette packets, newspapers, advertisement flyers from a farm supply store and bits of plastic of an undetermined origin.

The students logically concluded that absolutely none of the trash would appear to be the product of school activities or any city program. Then, how did it get there? Well, maybe it blew in to town. Seriously, you have to love the thought process given that our school and community are virtually surrounded by fields. There isn’t a fast food establishment within miles.

At this point the students are grabbing at straws, delaying the inevitable.

One last “show and let it sink in” in my lesson plan; the locker hall. There, in all its glory is a fair sampling of student generated stuff on the floor. Papers, pencils, a book, a lunch bag; not a massive amount, but enough to be untidy. Whose mess is that and whose responsibility is it to clean it up?

Choruses of “It’s not mine” became a tad embarrassing when specific books could be traced, by check out number, to specific individuals. Truth be told, some of the bits and pieces were unidentifiable as to ownership. Could belong to anyone. Could have been dropped by a student from another hallway. But, it’s our hallway and in a small school kind of like home. No kid meant to make a mess below his or her locker, but, the bell was about to ring and the pencil pouch exploded and I just left it there. I didn’t realize I dropped that paper as I was running to gym.

So, the big decision hangs out there. Sometimes it isn’t our mess, sometimes it is. We may have made it truly by accident and unaware, we may have made it knowingly and selfishly. Do we have individual, personal responsibility to manage our own mess? Sure, certainly when we know about it.

What about the mess no one claims, the one that blew in from somewhere else, or that we didn’t realize we made?

Day three, the students voted to pick up trash. The project was accomplished with little complaint from those originally less willing. For a period of time, the students were much more aware of the school environment and were more careful. Some brought my attention to their efforts. You have to love Middle School kids!

As with all lessons, constant monitoring is needed. Little bits and pieces fall to the wayside and without attention, there is a mess and then, again, it doesn’t matter that it got there; it must be cleaned up if we want to live in a comfortable and pleasant environment which makes all of us proud of our community wherever it may be and for all to see.