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Trash Can Kids

By Rick Benedict

As an educator, I am concerned about the high school dropout problem and about students who, for whatever reason, have decided traditional schooling is not for them. Several years ago I designed a program I thought might meet the needs of those students. I started an alternative high school aimed at getting young people off the streets and back into school. This project focused not on students currently having trouble in school but rather on those who had already dropped out – or been dropped. The school staff literally went out into the streets and talked dropouts into giving school one final opportunity to meet their needs.

Enterprise High was named for the prime attribute that defined its structure. Students organized themselves around business ventures and worked in teams to make and sell products. Each team decided together how to invest their time and energy. Some build furniture. Others created artwork. Some began catering businesses and marketed food and services. Students split the profits based on the group’s consensus of who deserved what percentage.

Each Enterprise High venture was staffed with one basic skill teacher and two or three enterprise teachers or paraprofessionals. Students learned math, reading, writing, and problem-solving skills in response to the business needs they encountered in the process of producing and selling items. They also learned to cooperate and resolve conflicts without violence. They learned to respect themselves, their accomplishments, and each other.

Working with at-risk students is a series of ups and downs, successes and setbacks. Heartbreak often alternates with celebration. Enterprise High was like that. Improved attendance was balanced by a teen pregnancy. Dope in the washroom muted the excitement of improved test scores.

And sometimes magic happened. A group of students were making dolls. Dolls with nylon stocking skins and cuddly nightgowns were especially popular at the time. In the woodshop, another team was making cradles for the dolls. They couldn’t keep up with the Christmas orders.

During a break, a playful group of students created a full-sized, nylon stocking-skinned doll stuffed with cotton batting. Over time they gave her fiery red hair, a perky face, and fashionable (but not matching) earrings. They dressed her in the T-shirt of the season (REO Speedwagon) and a short denim skirt and finished her to look like . . . one of them.

The students named their friend “Clarissa” and began to dance with her during breaks. They spontaneously crafted a companion doll, Bill, to be Clarissa’s boyfriend. Then Clarissa and Bill needed families. Families that looked like . . . theirs. There were aunts who raised them, half brothers, stray dogs, little brothers, cousins, grandparents who were not “blood related” but who were closer and more loving than any that might have been.

Around their two central characters emerged a circle of loving, troubled, struggling support persons. The creative staff seized the opportunity. Give them life, they suggested. Write about them. Who are they? Where did they come from? What was life like for them? What were prices like in their time? What was the world like? Reading, writing, research, history, geography, sociology, psychology, anatomy (they struggled to create life-size dolls that were self-standing and poseable, leading them to create internal skeletons of wire and wood modeled after the human skeleton) all came alive in Clarissa and Bill and their ragtag assemblage.

But what about enterprise? All this industry and creativity and production and no one was considering their marketability. How would they market these wonderful creations?

Brains began to storm. Cheap dates? Passengers in cars? Patients in waiting rooms? Clothing models in showrooms? There were lots of good ideas, but no commitment. There was no follow-through.

“What’s the problem?” Julie Williams, their beloved teacher asked. One of the students was able to articulate their block, which until then had remained unconscious. “We can’t sell just one to anybody. We have to sell them as a whole. We just can’t . . . break up the family . . . “

It was a profound moment. A hush fell over the room. The sadness was palpable. This group of ragtag dolls – freshly created with personalities, scars, trials, histories – this family could not be sold off, no matter what the price.

Their determination was tested. A dentist’s office responded to their proposal to “never have an empty waiting room.” The offer for one doll was $300. “No sale,” was the response. A dress shop offered to buy another for $200 for a different character. “Sorry, no sale.”

“Then what are we going to do with them?” Julie asked. “What can we do to make their creation feel completed and prized?” No one remembers whose ideas it was, but the group pounced on it with unanimity. A wedding. Bill and Clarissa should get married. All the family members should attend and be seated on the appropriate sides of the altar as “friends of the bride” or “friends of the groom.” Key family members should “stand up” for the bride and groom. The students would plan the wedding, build the altar, create the guest list, write the invitations, plan the menu, and prepare the food.

Some students made wedding clothing for the wedding parties. Others talked about ways to insure that Uncle Albert (no one’s real uncle but married to the aunt [second marriage] who raised Clarissa) would not start drinking again at the reception.

Amy, another student, wrote the following history to be read at the ceremony:

THE SAGA OF THE TRASH CAN KIDS

Once upon a time there was a man who collected junk.

He could see beauty in things that other people thought were worthless.

One day he was going through a junk yard and he came upon a Trash Can Kid.

This Kid appeared to be worthless to everyone else, except to the man who collected junk.

The man took the Kid home and loved it. He gave it a home and went out looking for other Trash Can Kids.

The man took them all home. He gave them his love. He gave them his heart.

And because he loved them, and because he gave away his heart, they came to life!

And because of the life they had, they began to love one another.

They even learned to love themselves.

And so we are here today to celebrate that love as Clarissa and Bill carry it on into the future, helping themselves stay alive and others come alive because of it.

The ceremony was brief and unspectacular. “The Saga of the Trash Can Kids” was brief and spectacular. The student who wrote it understood the real venture that had begun on that class break five months earlier. The students had created metaphors for their lives in the lives of these dolls. Amid the disconnectedness and interruptions of bloodlines, they had discovered something strong, something life giving, something life sustaining. That something was . . . a family. The kind of family that love can make. The kind of family that can be crafted from the connections we can make with others. The kind of family that gives life. The kind of family that is more valuable than money.

 


Chick Moorman is the co-author of “The 10 Commitments: Parenting with Purpose” and is the author of “Spirit Whisperers: Teachers Who Nourish a Child’s Spirit.” He is one of the world's foremost authorities on raising responsible, caring, confident children. He publishes a free monthly e-zine for educators and another for parents. To sign up for one, order a book, or obtain more information about how he can help you or your group meet your staff development or parenting needs, visit his website today: www.chickmoorman.com