I didn’t imagine that this morning’s activity would be one of the hardest things I would do all day.
A few months back, I volunteered to participate in a Career Day speaking engagement at a local elementary school. In my town, the schools are apparently 80% “underprivileged.” The school I would volunteer in is one of the more underprivileged schools in the area so I thought it would be noble to give three hours of my time to share wisdom, thoughts and inspire young children about how important it is to go to school and get a good job. Idyllic right? Should automatically make you feel good about yourself right?
Well, this proved to be one of the hardest things I had to do today. <insert melodrama here>
Now, given that I work in the alcoholic beverage industry I found it awkward to explain what a Brand Manager for wine does for a living <insert moral compass and D.A.R.E. here>. So, I decided to explain my job, using cereal as the product example to illustrate what I do. Who doesn’t love or understand the brand differences within cereal? So when I show up, tell the kids where I work and then show them boxes of cereal, the kids look at me puzzled and confused, not quite understanding what wine has to do with cereal, especially since they see that my profile says I work at a Winery.
In an effort to oversimplify my job I tell them, “my job is to help understand what people like to buy and then persuade those people to buy them.” Trying to be PC, I say “now I work at a winery, but wine is for adults so today, I’m going to use cereal instead as an example to show you what I do.”
Looks of confusion come back at me. In “stand and deliver” form, I start calling on students as their arms shoot up in the air and they stand to ask their question.
Student 1: “Isn’t wine just grapes?”
Me: “Well, it’s grape juice fermented into alcohol with yeast.”
Student 1: “Ewwwwwww.”
Student 2: “Do you make a million dollars?”
Me: “um no but I get paid enough.”
Student 3: “So you just make people buy things?”
Me: “We try to understand people to make products they like and then try to persuade them to buy it.”
Of course, these were all very innocent questions. Not meant to insult or harm. But I start to feel a bit…superficial. What am I teaching these kids? How am I making them better people? I don’t save the world and I don’t cure cancer. I get people to “Buy Stuff.” The teacher looks at me with a slight embarrassment – “we try not to have the kids ask questions like this.”
Me: “It’s ok, they’re kids. They’re innocent questions.”
Then their prescribed worksheet questions start popping up. I’m peppered with the questions one by one as each student intently and feverishly checks boxes and writes my every word down on their career day worksheet.
Student 1: “Does your job require math skills? Spelling? Presentation skills? Computer skills?”
Then the hard questions came:
Student 3: “What is the purpose of your job?”
<Voice in my Head: How do you explain the purpose of your life’s work to a 6th grader?>
Student 4: “How long did it take you to reach your goal?”
<Voice in my Head: Is this my ultimate goal?>
Student 5: “Do you love your job?”
Me: “Yes. I like my job.”
Student 5: “Why?”
Me: “Because I meet new people. I get to learn what they like, and I like the idea that people like what we make.”
Student 5: “Why does that make you happy?”
<Voice in my Head: Oh the curse of the whys!!!!>
Me: “Because….I hope that what we make makes them happy. Or adds some happiness to their lives.”
Student 5: “Does that make you happy?”
The teacher looks at me and I’m trying to figure out if she’s trying to see through me or testing me to make sure I give the right answer.
Me: “Yes. I like making people happy. I hope my job makes others happy. Yes. Seeing and making others happy makes me happy.” <Voice in my Head: Do I believe this?>
Good God please don’t cry in front of these children. Not that it wasn’t hard enough trying to explain marketing to a 6th grader, I didn’t expect these innocently curious questions to make me question if my work made me and others truly happy.
Me: “I guess what it comes down to it kids, learn as much as you can and grow up to do what makes you happy.”
As I leave the school, I come to learn that the SWAT guy won career day – all the kids loved the idea of training a K9 dog (#winning). I leave the school hoping that I left something positive, noteworthy or imparted any sort of wisdom on the children. At times I ask myself, “am I a fraud?”
As I drive back to work, I think about the innocence of the children and how un-jaded their lives and futures look. It’s so precious and I hope that each kid has the chance to chase their dream. Not to be dismal, but it starts to make me think of the innocence that has been lost in my life. Innocence lost from growing up from childhood, love and life and I wonder how, if and when we will ever regain our innocence.
I then thought, it’s too tragic to hold onto the idea of preserving innocence. The loss of innocence is the only way we learn to grow, otherwise we hide in a world where we avoid pain in order to preserve joy. The loss of innocence is one way in which we can learn how to discover a greater sense of joy beyond what we have imagined before. The loss of innocence (while sad) gives us permission to then discover the idea of Hope. HOPE is then what allows us to continue to see the possibilities and positivity in each day no matter how challenging the world seems around us.
As I replay their questions in my head, I realize that it is COMPLETELY EGOISTIC of me to want to feel good about what I did for those kids today. This was supposed to be an act of GIVING, not RECEIVING. I can only HOPE that something good came out of the entire career day for them and not because I was there. I can only HOPE that their innocent questions lead them to answers that help guide growth and happiness in their lives.
Note – If you’d like to give to schools, here are some useful links to give to Education:
Stanislaus Country Schools – The county of the school I volunteered in
Charity Navigator – Guide to giving to charities throughout the country that serve Education
Reinventing School – Want to reinvent education? Watch these TED talks