Monday, October 13, 2008

Teaching Moments

I was blessed with a bright and highly inquisitive son. Luckily for me, Talmage is also very trusting. In fact, he’s quite gullible. This is fortunate because sometimes I am asked questions that I just don’t have an answer for. Have you ever tried to explain electricity to a 4-year-old? Having a gullible child makes it easy for me to get creative instead of logical. I don’t need to go into detail about friction, charged particles, or alternating current. I just explain that there is a family of mice inside the wall on pedal bikes that ride really fast to make the plugs work. And if the answer makes sense to his young brain, he accepts it as absolute truth. Of course this might prove damaging when he tells his 5th grade teacher that birds can float because their stomachs are helium balloons filled up by circus clowns and dwarves. But we’ll cross that bridge later.

Talmage’s constant questions have presented me with a variety of neat teaching opportunities. At times I can let my creative waters flow. “The juice that comes out of the spider you squished with your shoe is poison, because spiders are evil and God hates them.” “Leaves change color in autumn because they are mad at the cold weather, then they fall like tears before it snows.” And then other times the questions are very sincere and honest, deserving fair and serious answers. One such teaching opportunity came on Saturday.

We were driving toward the freeway after a fun afternoon of bowling at Fat Cats. I was oblivious to my surroundings; I’d just bowled two awesome games and came out the ultimate winner among Pearsons. As we pulled up to a red light, Talmage asked, “What’s ‘vetname’ mean dada?” I lifted my head to see what he was talking about and saw a very dirty, very sad looking homeless man standing just outside Talmage’s window holding a sign that read “Vietnam Vet. Need food. Need help.” This topic is ironic. The queen of the Blogiverse, Dooce, hit this very subject recently, found here. Her take is different than mine, but very respectable. If you want an occasional chortle and highly entertaining read, check out The Dooce. Very edgy, very bright, and sometimes uncomfortable. But a brilliant blogger nonetheless. Heads up to the LDS folk though. She has regular target practice at our expense.

My own personal feelings toward the homeless have never changed. My heart aches for them. My stomach is a mixture of sadness, pity, shame, guilt, and disgust. Each and every time, I wonder what circumstances could have lead to this person’s situation. Where is he from? What’s his name? What’s his family like? Would he REALLY spend my $5 on beer?

My feelings for panhandlers, however, have changed dramatically. I used to allow my emotions for destitute people to govern my thoughts toward beggars. Now that I have a few years under my belt and a few bad experiences giving money to panhandlers, I see things very differently. Living in Italy introduced me to the gypsy culture. Filthy dirty homeless looking women, children, and babies all over the streets begging for money as a cover for their true source of income, pick-pocketing. President Flosi warned us on our very first night in the country. He was a former FBI agent that went undercover in Rome, infiltrating the mob. He was very familiar with the gypsy culture as an organization. He told us that no matter how badly our heart bled, do not under any circumstances give money to the gypsies. They were not poor. They were not homeless. Gypsy men drove nice cars and they lived in decent homes. They didn’t work honest jobs and allowed their centuries-old tradition of begging and thieving to fund their lives.

From time to time, especially in Europe, you’ll find someone that will actually perform something, THEN ask for money. I’ve seen people play harmonicas, violins, flutes, bucket drums, and guitars. I’ve seen singers, dancers, gymnasts, and magicians. I’ve seen people selling flowers, jewelry, and even rocks. All clearly poor, and all clearly in need. But they were doing something to EARN their loose change. They were respectable. The only difference between John Popper and the kid on the train is skill level and choice of venue. They both do the same thing for a living. It’s the people that don’t provide any product or service, but still expect reward that bother me.

I had a man come to my window when I was a teller at Wells Fargo wanting to change a $50 bill for smaller notes. The bill was clearly a fake. He went on and on about how he had fallen on hard times and was working as a laborer on a construction site and the foreman paid him that bill for his day’s work. He claimed to be a convert to the LDS church and carried on about charity and second chances for close to an hour. My branch manager got involved and PERSONALLY lent the man $50.00 with the understanding that he would pay it back. I’m not sure if he was exercising charity or just trying to get the guy to leave. I would have bet my kingdom that he would have come back to repay the $50; he was so convincing and sincere. We never saw him again.

Have you ever met the guy at the mall parking lot that needs money for a bus ticket back to Provo? I’ve seen him several times. On one occasion he hit me up twice in the same day, at two different malls. When I called him to the carpet he smiled, shrugged his shoulders, and walked away.

I was truly uncomfortable talking to Talmage about homelessness, poverty, and charity. He couldn’t wrap his young brain around the fact that people would choose to live on streets and beg for money:

“Why does he sleep on a street daddy? Wouldn’t cars hit him?”
Well, he’s not actually ON the street buddy. Probably in a park or in a parking lot.
“Why doesn’t he sleep in a house?”
Because he doesn’t have a house, kiddo.
“Why doesn’t he buy one?”
Because he doesn’t have any money.
“Why doesn’t he work at Cookietree and make bacon like dad?”
Cookietree isn’t hiring, broseph.
“Well why doesn’t he get a job somewhere else then?”

Why, indeed. I want to give him money. I’m a sucker for things in pain. I can’t hunt, I won’t fish, and I flinch when I kill a moth. Suffering people pain my soul. But unless the circumstance is truly inspired, I won’t give panhandlers money.

I explained to Talmage that most homeless people can work to improve their situation. The government has programs in place for employment, housing, and health care. I also explained that every month, on a particular Sunday, we don’t eat lunch or dinner and give the money we would have spent to help feed hungry people. We donate our time whenever we can at the DI, the cannery, the dairy, and the pasta plant to make sure that food is made to feed them.

I don’t think my answers satisfied Talmage, and I’m thankful that they didn’t. I want him to form his own moral compass as he grows up. I want him to treat the destitute in his own unique fashion, hopefully with empathy and compassion. He may be the guy that gives the man $20, or a combo meal from McDonalds, or a heavy coat. I bet he won’t care if he’s really a vet or if he’d spend the money on cigarettes or sell the coat for drugs. I’m already beaming with pride. I’m grateful for the chances I have to exercise fatherhood and teach my children.

On a humorous note, here’s a collection of photos of unique signs asking for money. I would absolutely throw down some spare change for this kind of creativity and humor:

1 comment:

Mandy said...

I have seen both sides to the charity too. Working downtown I often stop at the McD's for breakfast and that is a hot spot for people wanting money. I reply that I would be happy to buy WHATEVER they wanted (because they are so starving and all) but they refused. And then the guy we saw outside of a Pocatello Pizza Hut. We offered him our left overs, which was a whole box full and he grabbed it, ran right over to the curb and chowed that thing down! We all felt good about that. He may have wanted a beer to wash down the pizza, but hey- baby steps.