When I say “teenage boys,” what’s your first reaction?
My daughter is vehement about not wanting to become a teenager, because everything she hears about teenagers is bad. They graffiti. They are rude. They are grumpy. They are vandals. Teenagers have a really serious PR problem.
And, indeed, 3 teenage boys made me cry last Tuesday. But not, perhaps, the way you are thinking. They showed up at my desk at recess with a gift, to tell me how grateful they were for the opportunities I have given them, and the work I have done with them.
And it wasn’t just any gift. We worked together on a dolphin research project, so they gave me a purple bracelet with a silver dolphin charm on it, together with one of the most appropriate and eloquent cards I have ever seen (also purple, and also with dolphins, naturally).
That project was one of the highlights of my career, both as a teacher and an academic. I had a wonderful time working on it, and the fact that it’s ongoing and turning into a real, usable, useful system is intensely satisfying to me. It was clear from the way the students kept working on it long after the assignment was submitted that they were highly motivated. I knew how they felt about it. And they knew I knew. Yet they wanted to express their gratitude in a tangible form.
So I wear my bracelet every day, and when things get overwhelming I use it to remind myself that I must be doing something right, and that I am appreciated.
They didn’t have to do it. They didn’t have to write the card, or buy the bracelet, or do anything at all. They could easily have taken the attitude that I was just doing my job. They could have been all take and no give. But instead, as they have done throughout the project, they took the opportunity to give back. To lift my spirits in a way I could never have anticipated, and certainly never asked for. They left me far happier than they found me, both with their work, and with their gift.
They chose to make a difference.
There are so many ways we can all make a difference.
On the weekend I went walking with my family at the Quarantine Station down at Pt Nepean. As we usually do, we took a plastic bag and collected what rubbish we could. We collected a wide range of random stuff. Polystyrene, plastic bottles and caps, hair bands, food wrappers, pieces of glow stick, rope, and a large chunk of silicon sealant.
There was some rubbish wedged in rocks where we couldn’t reach it, and it took so long to cover a small section of beach that we couldn’t collect it all. The bag we carried away with us was only a small fraction of the rubbish on the beach on that one day, and it was heavy.
The trouble with starting to collect rubbish is that it’s very hard to stop. It’s easy to become a bit obsessed, and not stop as long as there is rubbish in sight. Sadly, in our current environment, that often means not stopping. Ever. Because there is SO much of it. Ever since our involvement with the Baykeepers Documentary, we have been a lot more aware of rubbish. Heartbreaking pictures of dead birds and dolphins with a stomach full of plastic bags tend to have that effect.
So if you make yourself responsible for it and decide to clean it up, you could be at it forever. And ever. And ever.
But you don’t have to pick up every single piece of rubbish to make a difference. The other day on the way home from work I ignored a lot of rubbish, as I have to, or I’d never get home. But I did pick up quite a few large pieces of polystyrene. This is particularly nasty stuff, because it breaks down into small white balls that look exactly like eggs. It attracts toxins and pollutants, and winds up floating, egg-like in our waterways. Indigestible balls of poison that our native fish, birds, dolphins and seals snap right up, with tragic results.
So I picked up as much of it as I could, and then I rode home. The rest of the rubbish that I had not picked up nagged at my heart, but I was comforted by the idea that there was a whole lot less rubbish than there would have been if I hadn’t stopped at all. Sure, I hadn’t got it all, but I left that part of the world a little cleaner than I found it.
I think this is a lesson I can learn at work, too. I can’t fix everything. I can’t do everything I want to do. I can’t solve every problem for every student, or even make my own subject perfect. But I can aim to leave the world better than I found it. Not perfect. Not clean. Not sorted. But better than it would have been without me.
It’s easy to feel that we have so little power, such a faint voice, that nothing we can do counts. There’s so much rubbish that it feels as though there’s no point in even trying to pick it up. But if everyone picked up 3 pieces of rubbish, our insoluble litter problem could vanish overnight. We can’t fix everything alone. But we can do a little every day, and have an impact that surprises us, even in a week. And by doing what we can, we can inspire others to do what they can. And together, our tiny acts can build up into a tsunami of change. Just by doing a little, when we can.
Like my students, we can choose to give back. To make a difference in the world. By showing someone we appreciate them. By cleaning up our local environment a little. By seeing something that needs doing and getting it done.
And that’s something that everyone can do.