22 June 2010

Flotsam and jetsam

Gabriel's second grade teacher, Mrs McChesney, runs the most effective behavior modification system I've encountered. She prints her own money, McChesney dollars, which is earned out in exchange for desired behaviors: turning in assignments on time, completing extra work, sitting quietly, random acts of kindness.

One of her classroom rules is that all correspondence from home must be penned by the student and signed by a parent, if necessary. Gabriel will write her a note about anything, which has resulted in a string of highly amusing, if somewhat tautological correspondence.

Dear Mrs McChesney
I'm sorry I couldn't get a white shirt. So my mom is going to get one. I don't know when she is going to bring it in. Mabey around 10:00-1:00. 
From Gabriel

Dear Mrs McChesney  
Gabriel has permission to walk home from school by himself with Sarah. She can come over and get me. Or I can go over to her when I see her come out. Either way is ok, really. So Sarah can get Gabriel, or Gabriel can get Sarah. And they can walk home together by themselves now. 
From Gabriel

When I mentioned to Mrs McChesney how amusing I found Gabriel's notes, and his zeal for correspondence, she smiled and told me they receive McChesney dollars for writing notes. I thought requiring students to write their own notes was clever, but paying them to do so elevates it to brilliant.

The highlight of the week is a shopping expedition to the McChesney store. So sweet is the experience that more than one of Sarah's fifth grade classmates cited the McChesney store as their fondest elementary school memory on their yearbook page. The children can choose to save up for big ticket items, such as lunch with Mrs McChesney or the principal. More often, they buy from the store's inventory of the usual tchotchkes that middle-class children have in spades yet covet nonetheless, and enjoy for roughly twenty-four hours — pencils, erasers, stickers, notepads, whistles, yo-yos, plastic rings and Mardi Gras beads — before being consigned to the metaphorical slagheap for parents to manage.

At this time of the year, Mrs McChesney holds the equivalent of a reverse fire sale, and this is where she really shines. First, a a note came home soliciting donations: do you have half a box of granola bars your kids hated? Old forgotten pez dispensers? More unsharpened pencils than you'll go through before they leave for college? All your flotsam and jetsam is welcome in the McChesney store.

But instead of selling these items for a song, they go for prices that could only be considered extortionist. In the past week, Gabriel bought a black synthetic leather checkbook cover, two silly bands for $200 apiece, an empty slot-machine shaped candy container, a composition notebook decorated with pink and purple flowers, and my favorite, a DIY balsa-wood star ornament bearing a symbol of unknown origins that resembles a double chai or an unwound caduceus. When I noted it's obvious handmade character, it's fine color scheme and superior draftsmanship, and asked when Gabriel had made it, he replied that he bought it. My son happily spent $300 for an anonymous child's discarded craft project.

That the children use their money to purchase the sorts of things they already own, and at obscene prices, does nothing to diminish their zeal to accumulate and spend their cash. She really has their number, because the fact that the McChesney store is nothing more than a pint-sized Ponzi-scheme does nothing to dimish it's appeal.

When school is over, I am contemplating hiring her to see what she can do with some of my own less desirable behaviors.

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