Winthrop Students Turn Five Dollars into a Wealth of Compassion

Students in Mr. Lorne Bell’s Introduction to World Religions class at Winthrop High School, who participated in the Five Dollars Project, are pictured above at the high school.

Students in Mr. Lorne Bell’s Introduction to World Religions class at Winthrop High School, who participated in the Five Dollars Project,
are pictured above at the high school.

The Millennial Generation is a bunch of self-absorbed, apathetic do-nothings. That is the sentiment often expressed by anyone over 30.

I’d be lying if I were to tell you that I, a high school teacher, didn’t sometimes suspect the same. In fact, my personal calling as a teacher depends in large part on this notion. If my students are not teetering on the edge of indifference – toward academics, toward government, toward the suffering in our world – then what role can I play in guiding their lives?

Which is why I was so deeply moved by the realization that my students might not need saving after all. They might need only opportunities and encouragement.

The Five Dollars Project was a simple exercise in mindfulness and compassion. As part of our unit on Buddhism, each high school Introduction to World Religions student received an envelope. Inside were a five dollar bill and a note: “Use this gift for good. Return and tell your story.” The money came from funds I raised for the course in 2011.

The project was a gamble. A church in Sherborn had recently tried the same exercise with its parishioners, and the stories of compassion were amazing. But these were Millennial-Generation high-schoolers. Naysayers might have asked, “What could possibly go right?”

One week after students received their envelopes, they returned to tell their stories. Here is a sampling:

Three students took their five dollars to Dunkin Donuts. They bought hot chocolates and stood at the Winthrop bus stop in the cold, handing out drinks to shivering travelers. (“I realized that helping others and doing good is a lot easier than I imagined. These opportunities are all around us every day.”)

One student recalled the local homeless man who frequents the sub shop where the student works. He bought the man a foot-long sub. (“I have realized the compassion that I should and will feel toward those in need, instead of looking down on them.”)

One student took the five dollars to the dollar store and bought warm clothes – hats, gloves, scarves – and distributed them to the homeless. (“I felt guilty for complaining about being outside in the cold for a minute and a half, when there are homeless people walking around in the cold all day. This is when I made my decision.”)

One student bought milk and bread for her neighbors. Several students bought toys for the Toys for Tots program. And the list goes on. From donations to the Salvation Army to childhood cancer organizations to animal welfare groups, students eagerly sought opportunities to make an impact. Many pooled money or added their own earnings to the five dollars to help individuals and families with holiday gifts and basic food and clothing needs.

One of the most moving stories came from a student originally from Kenya. In her native country, she had frequently helped an elderly woman who was poor and, in the students’ words, “surviving on nature.” The student asked her parents how she might use the money to help the woman, who is now 100 years old. Together they organized a family and friends dinner to try to build upon the original five dollars. They raised $300 – the equivalent of 25,000 Kenyan dollars, a life-changing gift for an unsuspecting woman half-way across the globe.

As educators, we are adept at masking our cynicism. At every moment of doubt, we recite self-assurances that even we sometimes have to will ourselves to believe: Every kid is good deep down inside. Every student can have those epiphany moments. Every child will come around in his own time. Lessons in character take root where lessons in content cannot. Teachers can make a difference. The next generation will repair the world.With five dollars, each of my students rendered these sentiments true. The world is in good hands.

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