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Virginia Journal of Education

On Point


Tissues and taxes

by Kristina J. Karnes

Last year, my county introduced a new vocabulary curriculum and, since the words were difficult and unfamiliar, I decided to have my students create flashcards. Because our school’s expendable budget is almost nil, and most of our students’ parents’ budgets are about the same, I knew I’d have to provide whatever materials I wanted them to have. Luckily, I came across an old, dented box of about 80 metal binder-rings, just enough for each student to keep his or her hole-punched flashcards on, and all I had to do was buy some index cards. Being frugal, I had the students even cut the index cards in half, making them last twice as long. Overall, it worked out really well, so I decided to try the same venture this year.

The difference, however, was surprising. Whereas last year I had personally provided all the materials the students would need, I decided to require one pack of index cards per student this year, and planned it early enough to have it added to the grade-level school supply list. I knew not everyone would remember or be able to bring a pack, but I figured if I just collected as many as possible, we would have enough. It started out beautifully: I used my start-up money from the school to purchase new metal rings; I placed a big cardboard box at the front of the classroom for students to deposit their index cards; and I made sure there were enough hole-punchers and scissors for each pair of students to share. Let the creativity begin!

However, I had not anticipated an anonymous phone call that my school would receive, vehemently complaining about this very system. As it turns out, what I thought to be a wise, relatively painless venture turned out to be a catalyst for “communist” accusations from a parent. That cardboard box at the front of my room, filled with packs of assorted index cards—some plain white, some neon, most lined on one side—did not represent learning and practical word-study, but instead aroused suspicions that I was gradually trying to brainwash these children into subversive, socialistic mindsets. Not only was the parent angry that her child did not receive proper credit for bringing in his own pack of index cards, but he would also, quite possibly, be providing halves of cards for other students whose parents did not provide. What an outrage!

How had I never thought of this before? Had I actually been trying to teach Marxist values to my red-blooded, rural, democracy-loving adolescents? Had I let my liberal arts, “elitist” education so saturate my way of thinking that I wasn’t even aware that I was on the brink of destroying children’s capitalistic inclinations? Was I trying to secretly turn my classroom into some sort of conformist commune? How dare I even suggest that students…oh, what’s the word…share?

I realize that receiving only one parent complaint about any of my decisions is really quite good. And it’s almost laughable to think of it upsetting me, but it did. As I pondered why, it occurred to me that what was most upsetting was the fact that nobody had complained when I, personally, had provided all the materials. Nobody had even noticed! Which scenario is more disturbing: that certain students’ parents don’t mind free handouts, or that they don’t want their children to help provide for those less fortunate?
It was certainly an unexpected complaint—I didn’t even know people still lived with a “red” fear anymore. But it has caused me to pause and examine other aspects of my classroom: What am I really teaching my students? By collecting boxes of tissues during the first week of school and, in my case, even giving one-third of those to a neighboring teacher who has no homeroom class, are we really promoting a “share the wealth,” socialistic attitude? Or are tissues just the equivalent of a low-overhead version of taxes: almost everyone gives, and everyone eventually benefits? As I have experienced the mid-January classroom in which most students have runny noses and not one has a personal supply of tissues, I choose to believe the latter. Are the boxes of markers I purchased and gave to each foursome of desks promoting Marxism? Or are they simply helping all my students, some of whose families can barely afford food, not to be left out of creative, colorful activities?

I doubt I will ever change how I collect vocabulary index cards from my students. It just makes too much sense to me. And if that makes me a “communist,” then I suppose I’ll just have to live with that. I suppose that if our classroom supply gets too low and I’m no longer an effective English teacher, well, maybe they’ll let me slide over and teach civics instead.

Karnes is a member of the Bedford County Education Association.



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