Monday, February 22, 2010

If They Had a Million Dollars

Remember the hit song by the Barenaked Ladies, a Canadian alternative rock band (whose members are neither ladies nor naked -- it least in public)? Here's how it starts:

If I had a million dollar

If I had a million dollars

Well I’d buy you a house

I would buy you a house

I’d buy you furniture for your house…

Hate to sound like a million dollar spoilsport, but I sure wouldn’t pay a million for those lyrics. Not even a hundred. Still, the tune is darn catchy, and the refrain is a bit touching:

If I had a million dollars,

I’d buy your love.

Whether or not that particular commodity can be purchased at any price will not be the subject of this post, although you may wish to pursue it elsewhere.

Since the 1989 publication of my second book, If You Made a Million, I have seen countless examples of student writing that begin with the prompt, “If I had a million dollars…” They fall into three categories of roughly equal size. I’ll call the them "fulfillment,” "greed" and "charity."

By "fulfillment" I mean the meeting of life’s needs and reasonable desires to improve one's life. (OK, I admit I’ve made myself the sole judge of “reasonable” but I think you’ll sign on with me.) Those children whose million dollar dreams fall in this category tend to be realistic. With a little financial boost, they could probably buy the things they’re wishing for. And so we have six-year old Alexandra who writes in Alexandra’s Million Dollar Book (with a dedication page, incidentally, honoring one David Schwartz):

If I had a million dollars I would ask my Mom, “Can I have a book?”

If I had a million dollars I would ask my Dad, “Can I have a pet?”

I would guess that Alexandra’s life would be improved by the arrival of a pet and a book. If I could be the genie in the oil lamp, I would grant Alexandra her two modest wishes. Other children have wished for clothing, toys, trips, tickets to concerts or sporting events, their favorite foods, even — sadly —heat for their homes. Some of the cravings enter the realm of the luxurious — a swimming pool, for instance, in Opelika, Alabama. But considering the summertime heat and humidity of Alabama, I would say the swimming pool could help improve the yearner’s life (or at least comfort).

Eventually we cross the fuzzy line that separates fulfillment from greed. Here we have children gunning not for just one toy but for thousands or millions of them — often duplicates of the same thing. “I would buy a million Nintendos” or “a million Wiis” or whatever happens to be the hot gizmo du jour. But that’s only the beginning of million-dollar greed. I’ve seen kids spend their imaginary million on items that a billion dollars couldn’t buy: “I’d buy Disney World.” Not content with a such a meager piece of real estate, one spender revealed a vaster aspiration: “I’d buy Florida!” Even that was outdone by the child who boasted, “I would buy the World!”

But to me, the big winner here is philanthropy. I’m pleased to know that about a third of the authors spent their fictional money to improve the lives of others. Some took on lofty, if vague, goals like “I would buy food for the poor” while others were more specific: “I would buy a car for my brother so he can get to work.” Or, “I would give my money to my nice teacher, Mrs. Swartzel, so she can buy a golden necklace, golden ring, a golden castle. I like my teacher.” (Appropriately enough, this magnanimous student is named Buddy.) Some gave to organizations (a pie graph of “How I Spent my Million” showed sizeable slices of the pie served to worthy causes including the Leukemia Society and the Adopt a Giraffe Society). My all-time favorite came from a girl named Margarita: “I would shar my money with our teachers, the prin and the children.” (I assume the letters “cipal” were meant to come after “prin.”)

With a million in spending money, some combine greed with philanthropy. One standout example came from the writer who wanted to buy a big dinner for everyone in his school and then use any money left over to buy himself a horse, twelve dogs and a Ferrari.

Whether motivated by self-improvement, greed or philanthropy, this kind of imagining does motivate kids' writing, but I hope their written words are accompanied verbal discussions. If I were the teacher, I would have as many questions as the kids have ways to satisfy their spending lust. For starters: “Could you really buy a million computer games for a million dollars? And why would you want a million of them anyway?”

It might be worth pointing out that many items on the kids’ wish lists, such as Disney World, would knock you back more than a million. And even with an unlimited budget, not everything in the world is for sale. The State of Florida would be on that list (though some political observers might disagree!).

Of course with a little guidance, these exercises can be mathematical as well as literary. Like something out of Math Curse, the math problems should flow like liquid dollars from the spending pumps of these students. Every time I read “If I had a million dollars, I would buy a million X,” I wonder if anyone asked the child how much each X would cost if you could buy a million for a million dollars. If they cannot come to see the unit cost as $1, an important prospective math lesson has been missed.

One 4th grade class used a million-dollar spending spree as the basis of a subtraction activity in which each child was issued a checkbook with a balance of $1,000,000. Finding real prices of items advertised in magazines and newspapers (no houses allowed and no more than one car), they had to spend their way down to $0, showing the math each step of the way. The kids were surprised to see how long it took them to dump that much money.

If only it worked that way in real life.

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