My son was in Transition Year last year. This is a year in secondary level school where students divert from the solely academic focus of the traditional curriculum. A welcomed emphasis on new learning experiences and work placement experience make this a particularly important year in my view. Opportunities to break new ground, develop new friendships, forge links within the community and to travel are afforded to the students. Often it is the year when students shine for the first time, when they have more opportunities to tap into their inner-strengths – strengths that the traditional curriculum does not value.
I was delighted to learn that students would be facilitated with the opportunity to volunteer within their communities. With the advent of social media, teenagers can often reduce the social dimension of their lives to pressing buttons on a tablet, tweeting or snap chat when they return home from school. Branching out to the community offers them the experience of meeting new people and seeing the world. Teenagers need to extend their social experience outside the virtual world. Anything that offers them an opportunity to connect with their community is a wonderful idea because people are becoming more insular. Psychological research confirms both volunteerism and social connectivity to be linked to more happiness in peoples lives.
St. Patrick’s Day was approaching and my son and his friend were allocated a business premises in town where they would decorate a window with a colourful mural. A number of students from his year group would do similar work. This was volunteerism and civic spirit at its best. I was impressed by the initiative. However, it proved not to be as straightforward as I had thought it would be. Just as all aspects of the traditional curriculum do not work out (i.e. courses don’t always get fully covered within the allocated class time etc) this noble experiment backfired completely. It backfired due to both boys encountering a mean spiritedness than no school or parent could ably prepare them for.
My son parted with twenty euro of his savings to help with the purchase of special paint suitable for window painting. He was assured that the business would reimburse him when presented with the receipt on completion. He told me that the relevant local shops and restaurants involved in the project were aware of this condition. The boys were doing the mural in their own voluntary time but at no cost to the business except for their own expenses i.e. the paint. A mural on paper was designed on the previous night. He looked forward to the whole experience. I drove down the town to spy on their efforts. All seemed fine.
When the volunteers concluded they presented their receipt to a senior member of staff. No thank you was uttered by the recipient of their gallant effort of volunteerism. No real interest in their work ensued. ‘I won’t be reimbursing you for this paint’ she uttered, ‘These are very large tubes and you will get further use of the remaining paint’, and duly with a great reluctance gave them a five euro note from the till. The artists learned a hard lesson – that not all art work is appreciated and that the world can be very mean. Maybe, it’s a lesson that they needed to learn. Sometimes our voluntary work goes unappreciated too. I recall driving over three hours to give a voluntary talk to a community group and a further three hours back home afterwards. No thank you card. No bottle of wine. Indeed, there were hardly any words of appreciation uttered to me at all by the organiser as I headed homeward.
Within one week I received the most beautiful email from a person that attended the talk I gave. She expressed how helpful my words were and how they landed perfectly with her. That was the best gift I could ever receive. While receiving thanks is a beautiful and enriching experience volunteering for the sake of being thanked contradicts the concept. That said – gratitude is not only the greatest of virtues, but the parent of all others, according to the philosopher Cicero. Maybe, I am old fashioned but a genuine thank you goes a long way. But as my son has learned people have the ability to be very mean.
PS The school fully reimbursed the boys.
(c) Shane Martin