Friday, December 17, 2010
I wanted to go dancing last night, or to see a movie that would pull the tears from my eyes. I had spent a lot of the day - between work assignments and meetings and other parts of life - advocating for my grandmother to get her surgery. Which, I might add, she still hasn't had. We're hoping, in a realistic way, that it will be tonight.
All this to say that I'm more than a bit spent emotionally. So maybe that's partly why this story hit me hard, but maybe there's more to it too. Maybe there's something in it that should hit me no matter what else is going on in my life.
My oldest son is in grade 8. Last week he told me he was part of two Secret Santa exchanges - one within his homeroom and the other with Athletic Council. The AC one involved four one-dollar presents with clues, followed by a ten-dollar gift and reveal. The classroom one was simpler - one ten-dollar gift on the appointed day. He had planned to spend his own money on all these gifts, but I offered to give him ten dollars or so, to help subsidize the expenses.
He got nice gifts along the way and then a box of gourmet jelly beans on the last day. The problem was the gift HIS Secret Santa received.
It was a used, cigarette smoke-scented stuffed duck.
My son explained that the kid who gave it came from a poor family, but that the kid was always joking around and never took things seriously in class, so he figured the gift was partly from a lack of means and partly as a joke.
We were less sure. And my heart broke.
Apparently the duck has become a kind of mascot already. It has been regifted along with some chocolate, and people think the duck is awesome. Except not on its own as a Secret Santa gift.
All the exchanges were optional and at least one person opted out of one of them, so she could focus on the other exchange. The giver of the duck didn't have to participate. There would have been no stigma in not participating. But he did and he gave a duck.
Our family talked about this at length. About what the kid could have done, what the teacher could have done (our other son's class did a two-dollar exchange, and the teacher said she would bring a couple of extra gifts in case either a child forgot or was unable to purchase a gift), what the school could have done. My son said another class did a more extravagant exchange: with four three-dollar gifts followed by a twelve-dollar one. Did that teacher not think? Is school designed for the wealthy? My husband's school identifies kids whose families are in need and makes sure they quietly give a gift to those kids, so that they don't go without at Christmas. He also said that sometimes programs that make it easier for kids to participate can encourage them to stay in their current situation, rather than either saying no to participation or finding a means of earning income themselves.
I hate child poverty. I really do. Because what choices do kids really have? A lot of my work has been with charities that come up with good solutions for child poverty, but it's so dreadfully wrong. It upsets me to no end that the duck smelled of cigarette smoke, because I wonder how many packs of cigarettes could have been foregone to buy a Secret Santa gift.
My family has choices. We don't choose to buy into every program the school offers, nor every trend, but we can find money for kids to participate in the activity of their choice. Some kids don't have that luxury. Some kids, at precisely the age where peers mean so much, jokes that deflect attention must be cultivated and excuses must be made, don't have choices.
And worse, some kids don't have the choice to eat in the morning.
The really awful thing is that more than one in seven Canadian kids lives with this on a regular basis.
I don't know what to do.