photo by Narith5 at flickr.com
Yesterday, I went to the mall. (What can I say? I got one of those free panty coupons from Victoria Secret, so I made the trek.) Of course, I wound up in one store and then another, and somehow I found myself inside Abercrombie and Fitch for kids. I confess, I had never been in that particular store before, but my son’s 11th birthday is coming up, and I was lured in with the promise of a BIG SALE inside.
Once I made it to the back of the store (where they apparently hide the BIG SALE items), I met a blond-haired, 13-year old boy who was also shopping the sale rack.
“These are a good deal,” he said enthusiastically pointing at a brownish pair of distressed shorts with a thick belt. “Only $19.99,” he continued. “It’s, like, unheard of in here.” I told the boy – let’s call him Spaulding – that I’d never been in the store before and he took me under his protective, scrappy, teenage-wing and showed me what he considered to be the best deals.
After Spaulding happily made his purchase, he received a lovely, thick bag with substantial navy fabric handles. He also received $0.79 cents in change.
“You can keep the change,” he announced, grabbing his bag.
“I can’t,” said the cashier. “I’m not allowed to put it in the drawer. It messes up accounting at the end of the day.”
“Well, just keep it then,” insisted Spaulding.
“I’m not allowed to do that,” the employee protested, placing Spaulding’s coins on the table in front of her.
Spaulding grabbed the coins and looked around. He quickly located a tiny garbage can near the check-out desk – where people who have sprayed samples of cologne toss their tiny unwanted paper squares of fragrance, and he threw his change in the garbage.
My jaw dropped.
I could not believe that I had witnessed a kid throwing out a few dimes short of a dollar.
Once, when I was about 10 years old, I made the mistake of tossing out a few pennies while emptying out a junk drawer, and my father gave me a lecture that I would never forget. It started generally – how people come to this country with big dreams and nothing in their pockets – and moved to the specific at which point he explained that he worked his ass off every day to make sure that our family had everything that we needed, and he’d be damned if I was going to be so ungrateful and selfish (*insert in a few million more shameful terms here*) as to throw away money, even a penny, when there were people starving all over the world, people who would love to have my pennies. Let’s just say, the speech made a major impression.
Meanwhile, back at the mall, I couldn’t help myself. I retrieved Spaulding’s coins and prepared to go on a hunt to find him.
He hadn’t gone far as he was, in fact, sitting on a bench right in front of Abercrombie & Fitch for kids.
“Excuse me,” I started. “I don’t mean to be all stalker-y. . . but I got your change for you.”
Spaulding looked bewildered.
“Oh,” he said, “I didn’t want it.”
I must have looked at him as if he had grown a second head because he added, “I don’t have a place to put them,” he shrugged. “I mean, no pockets or anything.”
He explained he’d brought his $25 to the mall stashed in his left sock.
I asked him if he received an allowance, and he said that he did.
“Ten dollars a week,” he said for making his bed, putting his dishes in the dishwasher, and doing his homework. He added that sometimes he didn’t get the full amount if he didn’t do everything he was supposed to do, but most of the time his parents just gave him the full amount because it was easiest to give him a $10 bill rather than have him argue with them, which he would inevitably do.
I couldn’t help myself.
I lectured him.
I explained to him that our economy is a train-wreck, that people have lost their jobs and their homes and cars; that folks can’t pay their bills or afford to send their kids to college. I told him that in extreme cases people are eating out of dumpsters, that they would have loved to have had his loose change.
“I get that you don’t have pockets, but how about you just put the change in there,” I pointed at his new A&F bag and noisily deposited the coins inside.
Spaulding shrugged. “I didn’t think about it,” he said in earnest. “Honestly, I just don’t like change.”
“Listen,” I said, trying not to get all preachy because I work with students and I know that preachy tone doesn’t work, but – again – I couldn’t help myself. “I’m guessing that your parents work really hard for that money and they would not be thrilled to know that you are throwing away your allowance. When you go home, get a mug or a bowl – some kind of container that you like – and just start throwing your spare change in there. You’ll be amazed at how fast it adds up. And if you really don’t want the change, make a wish and toss it in one of the fountains because that money goes to charity.” I paused dramatically. “Just don’t throw your money in the garbage, okay?”
I turned my back on Spaulding or Trevor or Hunter or whatever his real name was and returned to the store where I asked the cashier is she had ever seen anything like what had just happened.
“Like what?” she asked absently.
“Like kids choosing to leave their change behind rather than take it? Like kids literally throwing their money away?”
“Oh that,” said the cashier, looking more than a little bored. “It happens all the time. Probably every day.”
I was horrified, and I made it my mission to ask a few more cashiers to see if what I had witnessed in one store was just a weird anomaly to be discounted or if it was truly as commonplace as the bored Abercrombie girl made it sound. I wish I could say it was a one-time thing, but I was astounded to learn that every single checkout person reported that he or she had been in a situation where people had elected to leave their change behind rather than take it.
What is going on? Spaulding doesn’t like carrying coins? You’ve got to be kidding me? I’m telling you, this boy was a kind, decent boy. But he is obviously also a spoiled, entitled boy who has grown up with little sense of gratitude or appreciation. He receives $10 a week for doing things some folks would consider expected household chores. And he gets his money whether he does them all or not. Young Spaulding clearly knows how to work his parents.
I’m worried. These young people are making their way into our work force, ill prepared for its realities. They expect praise and rewards for performing routine tasks. I see them in my classroom at my community college already; they expect A’s, even if their product is mediocre. A colleague recently remarked that today’s young people expect “a trophy for simply showing up.” Clearly, many children of this “gift-card” generation do not understand the idea of saving one’s coins, or delaying gratification. How could they when their parents have given them everything they could possibly want? In fact, they have been given so much, they don’t even need to keep the change.
What have we done? Why did we do it?