Serviceable Service

(Originally published January 21, 2010 at playgroupwtihsylviaplath.com)

Note: This post is in direct response to Slim, who after reading the first two posts said, “Well it’s nice, but isn’t it going to be about something? It’s just, ‘blah, blah, blah.’” Apparently the Boston sports blogs he reads are not just ‘blah, blah, blah.’ Who knew?

IMG_0045.jpg First let’s accept that the institution of motherhood is service itself. Sure it’s best when there’s a healthy dose of love and nurturing involved too. But let’s face it, just love isn’t going to get you to hockey practice or marinate that chicken.

So, from time immemorial, the job requirements have been to birth that baby and then quite simply keep that baby alive. Service. Then along came industrialization, processed sugar, youth sports and Greenpeace, so now there’s a healthy side portion of guilt to go along with the service. Don’t get me wrong, I love mothering as much as the next girl who calls a construction paper turkey with googly eyes “art.” But there’s a lot of service and guilt involved.

So, this week’s Martin Luther King, Jr. Day of Service. First, let me get it out there – love the man, love the sentiment, believe in community service. However, as a woman in a job pretty full-up of service and guilt, this “opportunity” to teach my children weighs on me. Mostly because I struggle with what the appropriate lessons and actual service efforts should be for young children. But also, because by turning the holiday into a service day, the actual curriculum and cause for celebration and reflection is lost.

For my kids, and many out there, the life of Martin Luther King Jr. and his place in our nation’s history is still the more age-appropriate and important lesson to learn. He was a martyr for civil rights in our country, he led the Montgomery Bus Boycott, he led the March on Washington, and he was the youngest person to receive the Nobel Peace Prize. As a ten-year-old, he even sang with his church choir at the 1939 Atlanta premiere of Gone With The Wind. I mean, as an American citizen in history, the guy ruled.

And yet, at the completion of a second grade unit learning all about “Our Friend Martin,” my son struggled with his reading response homework. “How am I supposed to know why he was killed? It only talks about all the things he did and then it just says he was killed.” Granted, my son may be a little slow in the inference department, but he is eight! Go ahead and teach him that there was an ugly time in our country of fighting, inequality, and racism. And it’s not over yet.

My friend Martin’s lesson to elementary school children should be about that fight and the bravery to stand up when something is not fair. It should not be about making birdfeeders for the community, beading bracelets, washing the local fire-trucks, or even sewing new fleece pillows for hospital patients.

If your friends are there, you do arts and crafts projects, there are snacks (proceeds going to help find a cure for cancer, of course) and you get a cool new t-shirt to take home, that’s called a birthday party not a day of service. (And don’t get me started on the birthday invitation that says, “Instead of gifts, Reilly would like his friends to bring blankets for the homeless.” Because I’m actually quite sure Reilly would like the new Lego Star Wars Droid Battleship.)

Like the man in his day, Martin Luther King, Jr. Day was met with opposition, hatred and bigotry. The Day was voted an official U.S. holiday in 1983 – the first of its kind to honor a private citizen. Right there, something to talk to kids about. It wasn’t actually celebrated until 1986, and even into the 1990s some states still weren’t giving the day its due. The Super Bowl was moved from Arizona to California in 1990 because The Grand Canyon State was acting less than grand.

In Virginia, the holiday used to be a three-fer – celebrating great generals of the Confederacy and civil rights – they called it Lee-Jackson-King Day. Nice. While employees of the state of South Carolina, up until 2000, could choose to observe either MLK Day or one of three confederate holidays. (Unless of course you are the governor and you are going to visit your Argentinian mistress, then you’re probably going to need all three of those.)

Perhaps I am hyper-aware of the issue because Philadelphia is where MLK Day was transformed into a Day of Service, and it is still the largest of its kind in the nation. Could it be that being surrounded by 70,000 volunteers in matching MLK service day t-shirts has contributed to my guilt?

Speaking of which, is it any mystery why Target and other corporations spent upwards of $100,000 to get their logos on 70,000 backs for the day by “donating” the shirts? Mind you, when trying to research the store’s role in the Day of Service, I continued to be given “Target store hours for MLK Day.” And trust me when I tell you, I’ve nothing against Target.

But I do have something against teaching my children charity that is more about the “chairing” or service that is too disconnected from the “served.” Many of the savviest (and self-servingly so) causes out there are teaching consumers “embedded philanthropy” – like the RED campaign, or Buy One-Give One efforts that make a corporate donation when you buy the product. So yes, teens can get that new iPod andfight AIDS in Africa at the same time.

Similarly, most of the MLK Day service projects for children seem to be teaching embedded service. I am still on the lookout for projects that will show my kids that socializing can be a by-product of service, rather than service as a feel good by-product of socializing. Teach my kid about MLK the man before we move on to solving world hunger one hand-painted ceramic bowl at a time in a “simulated soup kitchen environment for kids in grades pre-K through 12” (I am not making that up).

Besides, all I really wanted to do on Monday was clean out my basement. And, somehow, I felt guilty about that.

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