Spring break is over so it’s time to catch up on some blogging. In one of my books, In Fact: The Best of Creative Nonfiction, the very first piece warns writers against getting into a situation where you only spend your time reading and writing. When I read that I thought it was kind of a stupid warning. I had so much to spew. But then I kind of ran out of things to say, I guess. So I’ve spent the last week living, and it sure was great. I’ve completed everything on my spring break to-do list, and even though I didn’t get to go to the beach with friends, I thoroughly enjoyed myself. I enjoyed taking a vacation from that closed-in space inside myself.
But, alright. First post-spring break post: this one is about a kind of moral dilemma that I’ve recently experienced. I’m still experiencing it. God, I wish I could talk. I’ll just start writing and I hope you can make sense of it.
I spent a good chunk of my spring break volunteering with Girls Inc. (http://www.girlsinc.org/index.html). It’s this great program that’s meant to educate and empower girls who come from less-than fortunate situations. Earlier this year I’d had a book drive for the Columbus chapter of Girls Inc. We collected over 300 books ranging in reading levels and genres. I felt so proud of myself and everyone who donated the books, especially when I arrived at the tiny brick house. The girls all jumped up from their homework and they looked excited to read and I felt like I actually might have made a difference in someone’s life. Well, I dropped the books off and left the center.
I decided to forego the parental arguments over spring break plans and just stay here in town while practically everyone else I know left for a glorious week on the beach. I thought that the only way I wouldn’t feel completely lame staying in town over spring break would be if I spent the week dedicating myself to something bigger. I would volunteer with Girls Inc. as a sort of follow-up on the earlier “volunteer” work I had done.
I worked about twenty hours this week with Girls Inc. The girls were sweet. They would hug me when I arrived and again when I left. But throughout the week I noticed the books I had brought gathering dust in the back of the room on a book shelf. A good ten of the twenty hours I was there was spent watching Nickelodeon on tv. I mean, maybe this was just because it’s spring break. They were there all day, and I just happened to be there during their lunch and snacktime hours, in which they’re allowed to watch tv.
It’s just that I realized that when I donated all those books and even when I started volunteering there, I thought that my little actions were going to make a huge difference in the girls’ lives, like my delivering Holes and Catcher in the Rye was going to somehow move these girls out of the projects. I didn’t change anything by volunteering. I taught a class on how to read music and they all got to try playing “Mary Had a Little Lamb” on the piano, but who’s really going to remember that? At the end of the day, all the time I’d spent with the book drive and also volunteering feels futile, because they are still the same girls they were before, doing the same things with their lives.
Which basically raised this question in my mind: when you are given opportunities to become educated, are you then obligated to give those same opportunities to others who don’t have them? And not the mediocre deeds of seeming obligation that I’ve already done, but real and meaningful change that makes an obvious difference in the course of their lives. I suppose the answer comes down to your political beliefs: when you work hard throughout your life to acquire wealth, are you obligated to use some of that wealth to help others out? The liberal response to this is of course you do. Your economic loss is miniscule compared to the gain of others, which contributes to the greater good, the overall well-being of humanity. If everyone could be selfless in that way, the world would be a better place. Right? But the conservatives beg to differ. Their view is that if one person can work his butt off to get to where he is, so can that poor guy on the street. He’s just lazy. And if we help them out too much they’ll become even more lazy and live the rest of their lives feeding off the generous wealthy.
This is a debate I have yet to take a position on. I feel like both arguments certainly have their merits and their flaws. But then apply this argument to enlightenment, to intelligence. If you can read, shouldn’t you teach someone illiterate how to read as well? You are not losing anything except time, I suppose. I talked about this with a friend on Friday when he picked me up from my last day of volunteering. He said that I shouldn’t feel too bad about what I did/didn’t do. He said that it’s true that most of those girls will probably end up living the same lives as their parents, because that’s how most people end up. But one day there will be a little girl who goes through Girls Inc. and has an indescribable sense of drive and determination to make something of her life. And she’ll pick up Catcher in the Rye and read it, and it will affect her and I will have done something.
Maybe that’s what it is. I really don’t know.
Yay for incoherence.