When It’s Theirs to Give

    Encouraging volunteerism in our young people is a great idea. Unfortunately, like so many good ideas which came before it, I think the execution of it has missed the mark.

    Several years ago, when the notion of making community service a requirement for graduation was still in its infancy, I attended the commencement exercises of a small high school in an affluent town north of us. Very small. There were 85 students donning caps and gowns.


    The ceremony was beautifully touching, belying the intimacy of kids who had known each another their whole lives. The feel of it all was more reminiscent of family than formality. And these students’ comfort level with one another and with themselves offered a glimpse of all that could be right with an educational experience. Bright futures for all.

    But in a right-minded idea, the high school had decided that all of these privileged children should give back. That they should have an idea and appreciation of what it means to volunteer. So they insisted that they do just that.

    My guess is that the new policy was well-received, quickly approved and met with acquiescence by all.

    All but one, as it turned out.

    It seemed that the class valedictorian, who had actually done quite a bit of unprompted community service on his own, didn’t like the oxymoronic bent of forced volunteerism. Emphasis on moronic.

    He refused to participate in the new requirement.

    Even with the threat of a withheld diploma, he stuck to his principles.

    And so on graduation day, when the classmates with whom he had shared twelve years of school and life shook their principal’s hand and received their diplomas, he did not.

    Volunteering is such a good idea. It’s a shame we’ve allowed it to become just another peg in the light bright picture of that perfect package being built for college admission. Too many students (and lets face it, their parents) look at every move and moment in high school with their eyes on transcripts that will be eyed by admissions officers. It’s become less about doing good and  more about looking good.

    In addition to the misplaced motives of indentured servitude in the guise of community service, there’s also something disquieting about the price tag that comes attached to some of these volunteering opportunities. It seems giving is its own thriving industry. But it’s not really the kids who are doing the giving.

    Sure, they’re likely a great help to that far-flung village or orphanage or hospital.  But c’mon, who among us would pass up free travel and full life exposure for a little work among the downtrodden? Particularly when it’s not junior who’s footing the bill for his foray into famine, it would seem that there’s more of a nod to self than selfless in these volunteering expeditions.

    Something’s off kilter. 

    Have we so perfected the art of hypocrisy that we can’t see that it’s not volunteering if they have no choice? We cry foul at the tricks played on us from atop Capitol Hill and in the shadows of Wall Street, but then allow our kids to begin resume padding in middle school. I think the reason Adam Wheeler’s Harvard scam went so far is because we’ve let all of our children go a little too far in the build-up of their bios. Instead of being met with an awe of disbelief, his well-packed Phillips Academy transcripts, perfect SAT scores, and 4.0 MIT GPA were likely greeted with a ho-hum hyperbole that had him standing alongside a lot of other outstanding scholars. I read that if someone, somewhere along Wheeler’s conned path had taken a moment to do a bit of math, it would have been pretty evident that there simply weren’t enough hours in his academic days to do what he claimed to have done. 

    But it seems that over-the-top is the new norm. So included in all those resplendent resumes are now hours and hours of saving-the-world work by kids who are somehow still maintaining grades, playing sports and musical instruments, and socially mingling with their four thousand friends on Facebook.

    Hmm. How many hours are in their days?

    And why is it that so few of these altruistic adolescents are opting to pull up their sleeves and do a bit of hard work at the most local of levels -at shelters and food pantries? When was the last time that a kid shoveled out his neighbor’s drive without a community service form and pen in hand? Sure, they’ll be good citizens. As long as they get credit for it.

    Nice message.

    Maybe it’s time to repackage the message, then. Time to get back to basics a bit. Instead of sending them off with the sense that there’s a whole lot of free out there, maybe it’s time to make it clear that not much is. Before they give, maybe they need to earn. A part time job teaches a whole lot about effort and value. Then, if they choose a worthy cause to support, it can come from their pockets instead of mommy’s pocketbook. And if they decide to give up a Market Basket shift and its corresponding pay to serve meals because they want to rather than have to, they’ll likely have a better notion of what service is all about and what it really means to be a part of a community.

14 thoughts on “When It’s Theirs to Give

  1. Linda, having worked in a very small community just north of us, I will tell you first hand that you are right on. One of our students refused to do mandatory community service and therefore was denied entrance to the National Honor Society (school local rule, not the National criteria). His parents were horrified and probably have not yet gotten over it (8 years later). He graduated with honors from Tufts 4 years later and is a truly wonderful and giving young man. In high school society, the peer and parent pressure is so over the top that it is scary. MANY of the students in above young man’s class “lied” about their community service and joked openly about how they beat the system. I am sure there is room on Beacon Hill for them!

  2. Ah -so you think that some of those folks over in the Probation Department might have begun their good samaritan work in public high schools?

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