Jeanne Koré Salvato

he common good is something we look at differently in the States and in France.  The word, “common,” is an unglamorous word on its own, but linked with “good,” it has a whole different meaning.  President Hollande served as president of France between 2012 and 2017.  Once he was elected, he determined that he did not want to earn more than ten times the minimum wage, so he reduced the presidential salary by 30 percent.  Ready for math?

SMIC is a French acronym for a complicated way of saying the minimum wage, which is 10.25 euros / hour; 18,655 euros / year.  President Hollande made just under 200,000 euros / year, slightly more than 10 times, but close.

Reader:  Why are we talking about math and the common good?
Me:  The short answer is money.  And the long answer is where our money goes, that’s where we think the common good is to be found.  Now, what if we applied this reasoning in the classroom.  Wait, what?  Money in the classroom?  Well, wait until you see!

It’s always about books around here, you might say.  True, I might say.  Have you read The Giver by Lois Lowry?  In it, there is a highly regulated world from which even the colors have vanished.  This is the opposite of an ideal world, and it is called a dystopia.  The main character, a young boy, comes to realize that what everyone would like you to believe about the place, and the value of what is going on, is really not at all what is happening.  At the end he escapes with another student in tow. The students in our seventh grade were amazed to look at how many awful things in the book were packaged as good.

Once we are all thoroughly depressed by this cruel, deceitful world depicted in the book, I ask the students to imagine an ideal world, or a utopia. We decide upon a handful of categories, such as how the government would function, how resources would be divided, what school would be like and how people would spend their leisure time.  Singly or in pairs, the students create posters to present to the class.  One of my favorite examples of school featured a refrigerator at every desk so that the students could have all the cold drinks they wanted, and snacks, of course.  I took notes on each presentation, showing the students that I took their ideas quite seriously.  When we were finished, the students asked me what I thought.  And I replied, “Let’s bring our ideal world into the real world.” 

The obvious question is how.  I commented that each person or group believed that resources ought to be shared equally.  How could we do that?  It turned out that OXFAM offered a chance to purchase a goat on their website, or chickens, or other items to improve the lives of people in other communities.

The students went home, volunteered for chores to earn 2 euros each, and then we sent off for a goat to be delivered to Somalia. 

The students were so taken with this success that they wanted the whole school to participate.  So, we began with the seventh grade in the English-speaking sections across two of our campuses. 

This time, the students participated in a read-a-thon, in which they got sponsors for their reading.  If a student read five books and they had 5 sponsors who pledged 1 euro per book read, why that would be … math!  One sponsor would contribute five euros, and five sponsors would make the total 25 euros.  Naturally the amount varied, but parents were eager to support their students reading.

I suggested we engage the local community, and ask for donations from the sandwich shops, for example, frequented by the students. 

The sum total of all this reading and community organizing was 3000 euros.  The students believed that water supply was an especially taxing problem and commissioned me to ask OXFAM how their money could go to alleviate that.  Indeed, there was a water-delivery project in Africa that we were able to support.  We also happened to have a member of our community in Sèvres, where the school is located, who runs a business called City Taps.  The goal of City Taps is to connect every urban household with water, something that too many do not have. The CEO of City Taps, M Gregoire Landel, came to the school and gave a presentation in an assembly to our students, showing that philanthropy does not have to be a stranger to a business model.  In fact, this kind of business model, a type of social entrepreneurship, is an excellent way to advance the common good and to earn a living while doing so. 

Let him explain:

The following year, we opened up this project to all three campuses, including students from the sixth grade through sophomores in high school.  We hooked up with other International Schools and this time used the money to further girls’ education.  A banner year (4000 euros)! collected from students’ sweaty palms, or torn envelopes, sometimes containing many euros in change. 

This interest in the common good all came, you see, from reading a book closely, namely The Giver, and looking at the ramifications of a different way of thinking. I think this project was one of my finest hours as a teacher.  And I appreciated the support of the Director of the school who encouraged me to conceive of the project and to take it as far as I could. 

In subsequent years the project was in other hands and didn’t seem to have the same spark.  I believe the spark came from first, the story in The Giver, and the students’ own ruminations, followed by sure-footed action.  Without the text, their philanthropy did not have the compelling context we began with. (Of course, I would say that. You know I’m all about the books, ’bout the books, no treble.)

Books + Reflection + Real world situations = Philanthropy

In Act I, the two men, Vladimir and Estragon, give us something with great generosity (via Beckett, of course).  Their gift is a disruption of our usual way of thinking, a mode we lean on, rely on, which is this:  one thing follows another.  That’s where we find the spirit of fun in the play, all those places where “a” does not go to “b”.  Here’s an example.  

Vladimir gives Estragon a carrot and asks, “How’s the carrot?”
Estragon replies, “It’s a carrot.”
Vladimir reflects, “So much the better.”

I love this because it implies that a carrot has the option of not being a carrot.  And that when a carrot is a carrot, well, we’re lucky. 

I was looking at the summaries available of the first act, and I must say, not good.  So here instead is a brief clip of this beloved carrot.

I happen to know that one of the pillars of Islam is giving alms.  This is maybe not so much fun as reading and thinking and earning money, but it does help.  Now, one reason to give alms is to spare the poor person from the humiliation of begging and also from envy.  This necessity of giving is reinforced with the dictum from the Encyclopaedia of Islam “…the prayers of those who do not pay zakat will not be accepted”.

Customarily 1/40 or 2.5 of excess wealth, which is an interesting term, excess wealth.  I remember being a struggling, indebted graduate student and saying to a friend, “I wish I were rich.”  And my friend said, “But you are rich.”  Somehow that sunk in, especially when I read the book, Behind the Beautiful Forevers, by Katherine Boo, about families scavenging on a dump in India.  If we take 1/40 of our stimulus check, 1/40 of $1400, which requires yet more math, we come up with $35, almost a beehive on OXFAM. If a beehive is a beehive, so much the better.

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