The Problem with Providing
I've been teaching for 15 years. For the first five, I required students to bring a pencil to class. If they didn't have this most basic tool, they couldn't participate. I had no mercy. If they were going to do well in my class, they had to come prepared. They knew the expectations and very rarely showed up unprepared.
However, one day, five years into my career, a student came without a pencil. I told him I expected responsibility and that he would have to figure out a solution. I thought nothing more of the situation until a colleague told me later that his mom was incredibly sick with only a few days left. I felt horrible. His mom eventually passed and I beat myself up for years over that unkindness.
The following year, I started providing a pencil cup in the back of my classroom for anyone who needed a little boost. When kids told me they didn't have a pencil, I smiled and pointed them to the cup. I wanted my students to be successful and to do that, they needed basic tools. I was happy to provide. It started out with the best of intentions, as problems often do.
Not far into my days of pencil provision, I noticed dozens of pencils lying all over the floor. I picked them up, re-sharpened them and replaced the full cup at the end of every class. Soon after, I noticed broken pencils, chewed and damaged pencils left on desks, bookshelves and in the halls. I salvaged what I could and ordered new ones. It wasn't long before pencil management was taking up the better part of my day.
Ten years later, I still have that cup. I sharpen pencils and fill it every morning. It is the very first thing I do after I turn the classroom lights on. And every single day I battle inside myself over whether it is actually the kindest thing I can do for my students. The problem isn't the kids that NEED a pencil. Of course I want to help them. The problem is the kids who don't. The problem is the HUNDREDS of students who have come to rely on ME to be responsible for THEM.
I will tell you what I've learned over a decade of putting out a pencil cup: It is good in that it meets a real need. It is bad in that it provides a whole heap of GOOD, RESOURCED, ABLE students the opportunity to be lazy. And they take advantage of it EVERY DAY. Why should they come prepared when they know Mrs. Wacek showed up 10 minutes early to be prepared for them?
The pencil cup is a microcosm of society and for all our thoughts on generosity, we spend a good chunk of time thinking about responsibility and hard work, too.
As we grow in generosity, we wrestle with giving away what's good and best to our neighbors because the terms GOOD and BEST are relative. What if GENEROSITY isn't what they need, but rather, our belief in them that THEY ARE ABLE?
I don't know how to fix this. All I know is that Jesus tells me to give. He says it over and over again in scripture and modeled it with the laying down of His own life. Jesus told us to give without letting one hand know what the other was doing. (Matthew 6: 3-4) My job is to give and to leave the results up to God. Some people will squander our gifts. That's just a fact we can't get away from. Others will use it to improve their lives and the ripple effect in the world will be greater than we'll ever see in this lifetime. Each time we extend generosity, we do so knowing that we can't control how it is received or if it will be used wisely.
Here's where I've landed: We don't get to judge. For me, there is huge relief in that. I won't have to answer for what people did with my generosity. I will only have to answer for how well I obeyed Jesus.
What are your thoughts? How do we create good boundaries with our generosity? Tell me in the comments!