For the fourth annual Nation Student Writing Contest, we asked students to send us an original, unpublished, 800-word essay detailing how the recession had affected them. We received hundreds of submissions from high school and college students in forty-four states. We chose one college and one high school winner and eight finalists total. The winners are Jim Miller of Henderson State University in Arkansas and Deborah Ghim of Buffalo Grove High School in Illinois. You can read the essays at TheNation.com/students. The winners receive a cash award of $1,000 and the finalists, $250 each. All receive Nation subscriptions. This contest was made possible by the BIL Charitable Trust to recognize and reward the best in student writing and thinking. —The Editors
This summer, I’ve become one of Chicago’s most unwelcome citizens: I am canvassing for Save the Children. Several hundred times a day, I approach strangers for their time and money, and on my commute home, I catalogue my encounters:
Today, I asked a man, "Sir, would you like to end child poverty?" He nodded and kept walking.
Now, I choose my words carefully.
Today, a mustached man in sweatpants, with long black hair and heavy earrings, walked by and stood out sorely against the clean-cut men in hundred-dollar suits. I asked him, "Sir, would you be willing to help fight child poverty today with Save the Children?"
"Most certainly," he said.
I told him what I tell everyone: I’m out here because 26,000 children die every day from treatable and preventable ills, and Save the Children is combating poverty with the help of donors like him. He told me he’s a government worker from Virginia, and that he appreciates what I am doing. "Now," he said, "I got a little money, but it has to get me home tonight. I’m goin’ to that ATM, and I’ll bring back some change."
I trusted him, and as he walked away, I approached and was rejected by several more people.
Later, the man from Virginia came back, handed me $50. "Your generosity goes a long way," I told him.
"I know," he said, and walked away, homeward bound.
The University of Chicago costs over $50,000 a year to attend, and I assumed that its mostly liberal, mostly wealthy students would be a receptive audience. Today, I approached every passerby.
"We’re just students. This is a recession," said one well-dressed girl. "What do you think?"
"Actually, no," laughed another, with an Alpha Delta Kappa purse slung over her shoulder. Her friends giggled with her as they walked away.
We are taught as canvassers that anti-malaria pills cost less than a nickel each. But if treatment costs so little, why do so many people worldwide still live with and die from malaria?
Today, a woman and her small grandson slowly walked by. I asked my million-dollar question.
She squinted toward her grandson, who translated my question for her. I put my case into simpler terms for the boy to understand. He put it into simpler terms yet, for his grandmother.
"Poor children need your money, Grandma."
The lady looked sadly down at him. "Grandma didn’t bring any."
The boy translated this to me, bowed his head, and led his grandmother away.
Today, after having been rejected by throngs of businessmen, I spotted a balding, disheveled woman, and asked for her time and money.
She spoke in a barely audible voice. I leaned in to hear her and realized that she smelled faintly of lavender.
She reached into a coin purse and I spotted only one five-dollar bill. She gave this to me.
Today, a group of students walked by.
Four of them paid no attention to me. The fifth turned and said, "No, thanks." Because I’m not offering a service or sweepstake, I don’t understand why people thank me, but it happens constantly, nonetheless. I thanked him in return as he walked away.
A few steps later, he turned and said, "Hey, you took that well."
I told him I get that a lot.
Today, I was told to stay home because Save the Children no longer has the funds to pay canvassers. "It’s not just Chicago," said my director, "It’s national. Everywhere, charity is bombing." On Monday, I must raise $120 to keep my job.
Today, three girls approached me with camcorders. "We’ll listen to you if you listen to us," they said. They wanted to record my thoughts on responsibility. "It’s a broad topic," one girl said, "but you can say anything."
I did. "We have a responsibility to our global community," I said. "Don’t tell me there’s a recession. Every night in Zimbabwe, 5 million people in this nation of 13 million go to bed starving, and food costs pennies. If this continues, it isn’t because our pockets have run dry; it’s because our hearts have run dry."
Then, they asked my opinion on responsible drinking. I was told afterward that I was being filmed for a beer commercial. One girl gave me a dollar.
This recession has affected my family and that of every canvasser with whom I’m working, but it doesn’t stop there. It affects families everywhere, who deserve dignity but have no access to drinking water, vitamin supplements, literacy or healthcare. As we clutch tighter to our precious dollars, the ability of international organizations like Save the Children to provide aid is floundering.
This recession is a test of our humanity.