A couple of months back, I had decided that my little patch of America was headed for the infernal regions in a bicycle basket, and that it behooved me to do something about it. I was especially appalled at the behavior of the youth in my neck of the woods, and had decided the thing to do was to volunteer my time and talents to ensuring that Staten Island’s youngins had something more productive to do with their spare time than spray paint bus shelters, engage in flash-mobbing local businesses, or drink beer in the woods, so I tried to volunteer with the local Boy’s and Girl’s Club of New York.
Amazingly, I was rejected as a suitable example for fragile teenaged minds. Perhaps I shouldn’t have used the f-word as a noun, verb, adjective, and often as punctuation, throughout my interview, but in retrospect I believe that what really put a bee in the bonnet of the social-worker lady who conducted that interview was my stated belief that what kids really need is more discipline and less mollycoddling. This goes against the grain of the touchy-feely-fake-self-esteem-detached-from-actual-achievement mantra of the modern Boy’s and Girl’s Club. I guess.
Be that as it may, I was determined to do something. Someone needed to, and it would be extremely hypocritical of me to write and profess that ‘something needs to be done’ and then do nothing of my own accord. So, I cast about looking for some other cause to support, some other arena in which I might make, as the cliché goes, a difference to at least one person in need.
Which led me to make perhaps the third-biggest mistake in my life (and no, I’m not going to tell you what the top two were, so there!).
In my zeal to ‘make a difference’ I forgot that when it comes to charity and community service, the absolute WORST place to try and make that difference is in conjunction with an organized religion.
You see, I was ‘turned on’, as they say, to a local church group (the church and religious denomination will not be identified here) which was in search of people who could teach basic computer literacy. This was right up my alley, having had over 25 years of experience in computer operations and systems programming. The Church in question had just received a donation of some 30-odd refurbished computers, and a state grant to run a computer literacy workshop for the barely-employable. The idea was to give some folks some basic computer skills so that they could go out and find a job (fat chance: I’m a professional and I can’t find one!). So, I got a call from Reverend Bonehead who had heard through a friend-of-friend that I was looking to do something ‘good for the community’.
I should have said ‘No’. I should have said “Thank you, Reverend, but I’m not comfortable working with a religious organization because I’m not a brainwashed doofus...", I should have referred Reverend Nincompoop to someone else, if I could have. But no…I had made the decision to do ‘something’, and something I would do.
To make a long story short, barely four weeks after this 'program' began it all came to an inglorious end. Mostly because the money set aside for it was spent or disappeared under nebulous circumstances, but primarily because Reverend Dipshit – who should have known better, one would think – had a much more…shall we say, optimistic… view of the better aspects of Human Nature than was perhaps evident. Or maybe the whole thing was just a scam to begin with?
You see, the first problem lay mostly within the human material that entered ‘the program’ itself. There was a cornucopia of very good reasons as to why many of those people had been deemed ‘unemployable’ in the first place, and why even a certificate in Microsoft Word wasn’t going to do much to change that fact. A few of our potential students had extensive criminal records. Most had never held a job for more than a few months, ever, in their lives. Somewhere around 75% could be considered functionally illiterate. The remainder would probably never learn a thing, even if you drilled a hole in their heads and poured the knowledge into it like concrete. Most are single mothers, many with a ton of unresolved psychological problems that would make Dr. Phil walk away in abject disgust and disbelief, vowing to take up a more noble and rewarding enterprise, like drywalling or sceptic tank cleaning.
But the absolute worst aspect of the entire experiment was the very one I had warned Reverend Dumbass about before we even started, but he was unwilling to listen to my concerns, and even hinted at an accusation of racism on my part for even suggesting it.
I had asked Reverend Dipshit just what sort of facility he had for securing all these donated laptops when they weren’t going to be used during classes. They would have to be locked up if they weren’t to be stolen, and in that particular neighborhood a church full of computers would make a lovely target, indeed. Reverend Asshole was convinced that the best thing to do was to allow the students to keep ‘their’ laptops when they weren’t in class, the better to practice the skills they would be learning in their spare time. I protested; give those computers to people with no way to bring either machine or warm body back to class on a regular basis, I said, and they’ll quickly disappear.
I was proven correct within a week.
Out of the original 35 laptops donated to the church, 12 of them ‘walked away’ with their owners after the first night’s class. That is to say, their new ‘owners’ had signed up for the program in the hopes of getting a ‘free’ computer, and they were proven right. Once the computer was in their possession they saw no need to return for another class, especially since no one was going to make them come back.
Which led to a second, and most-disturbing, problem; now that the word was out in the neighborhood that the church was ‘giving away free computers’, numbers of people began figuratively beating the doors down looking for theirs, and when told there was no ‘free’ anything they often got extremely angry and downright nasty about it. Before the first week was up, somewhere in the neighborhood of 100 additional people came looking for ‘free’ computers that didn’t exist, and to hell with the idea of taking a course in anything. There's a feeling of entitlement in the neighborhood (where would anyone ever get that sort of idea, one wonders?), and there was even talk of doing violence to those who got the 'free' computers by those who did not get one.
Simply asking the 12 walkaways to return their computers because it would be the right thing to do was a fruitless exercise. The usual excuse for non-compliance was that between the time the computer was handed out and the ‘student’ failing to return for his/her next class, was that the computers had been ‘lost’ or ‘stolen by someone else’. The second most-common response, which is mostly unprintable, involved quite a few Oedipal Sexual references and an insistence that Reverend Dummy attempt to try something physiologically impossible.
Reverend Shithead's wife had managed to 'rescue' at least four computers -- from local pawn shops -- at great expense. We also found that a good proportion of those 12 miscreants had listed false addresses and phone numbers when they had signed up for the course. Calling the police was, Reverend Moron assured me, ‘counterproductive’, and I guess he meant that in terms of revenge; the church might be vandalized or burglarized in retaliation for reporting a bunch of thefts.
The third major problem occurred within the second week. A number of the remaining students are of West African origin, and the African-American students evidently have a long laundry list of beefs and prejudices against them. The primary indication of this friction is how many of the West African students had their computers or workbooks stolen or destroyed by their African-American counterparts out of sheer hostility, through attempts to bully and intimidate them, or, as one student put it to me, ‘just because they can...’. The hatred for the West Africans by the African- Americans in the class was palpable, and often vocal and borderline-physical. There was language used that would have gotten me arrested on a variety of terrorism, civil rights, and hate crimes charges, but which African-Americans seemingly have no problem applying against their African cousins.
I was beginning to think that even I, someone who has little fear of even the biggest punk-ass gangsta (because I can handle myself, and I own a better gun than you do, thank you), might have to arm myself before showing up to teach these classes. And by the way, the worst offenders were African-American women, much to my surprise and dismay. The majority of the hostility (no surprise whatsoever here) stems from simple jealousy; apparently, the West African women are considered highly desirable by the local menfolk, and their penchants for using perfect English, cleanliness, and for comporting themselves with class and dignity, make the African-American women feel wholly inadequate.
By the end of the second week of classes, my 11 West African students were sharing 6 laptops and workbooks between them, and travelling in groups in order to protect themselves on their way to and from the church from would-be terrorists-in-hair-extensions.
Another problem was that the few Hispanic students in the class are, for the most part, totally illiterate. English is not just a second language for them, it might as well be a fifth one, and some are even ignorant of standard Spanish, having come from mixed backgrounds where dialect is more likely to be spoken. My command of the Spanish language is limited: I can understand approximately 80% of what I read or hear, but I have trouble speaking the language with any fluency whatsoever. There were eight Hispanics in this class, all but one female, and the church made no provision for either a translator, or for instruction books written in Spanish. Give them credit for hanging in there and trying, but they’re fighting an uphill battle.
And that was before the money, mysteriously, dried up...and surprisingly quickly.
Coincidentally, this sudden lack of funding reared its ugly head at about the same time as the church expanded its food pantry and got itself a pair of new mini-buses. Reverend Dumpkopf insists the events are unconnected; it’s simply a matter of ‘the government’ cutting back on ‘this particular program’ and the added expense of keeping the church meeting rooms open after 8 p.m., he assures me, and had absolutely nothing to do with any diversion of funds from one church operation to another.
Eventually, the remaining students, mostly through sheer frustration, began to leave the class. By week three, we were down to 9 laptops and 14 students, and we only had those computers left because their ‘owners’ at least had enough respect for the institution of the church that they wouldn’t go so low as to steal from it. The money to keep ‘the program’ going was no more; not a single student completed the basic course, and my services as a volunteer were no longer required…unless I wanted to feed the homeless, which is sort of like feeding the pigeons in the local park; you’re giving sustenance to a persistent and filthy nuisance which serves no obvious function, and who will eventually only shit all over you.
Christian charity, in my mind, only goes so far, and is wasted upon those who won’t even help themselves. The whole thing has been a tremendous waste of time and effort, and it could have been mostly prevented. Any program which brings about a connection between The Poor, the Church, and Government, is bound to fail for obvious reasons, despite the motivations and efforts of those who choose to do the right thing, mostly because:
a. People, in general, suck, and ‘poor’ people (who often get paid and fed to simply to breathe and breed, and of whom nothing is ever expected) suck even harder.
b. The basest aspects of Human Nature are often impervious to the dictates of enlightened self-interest. People whose only concern is ‘right now’ and ‘what’s in it for me?’ are not exactly the best investments of (other people's) time or (other people’s) money.
The Road to Hell, they say, is paved with good intentions. It’s become clear to me in a way that perhaps wasn’t so previously that it’s also lit by the streetlights of stupidity. A program which was intended to provide basic job skills to a segment of the population which may not have the opportunities provided by even the cheapest community college was destroyed from within by a combination of theft, prejudice, wishful thinking, possibly creative accounting, collusion between politics and religion, and sheer human stupidity.
What little faith I still had in human beings in their ability to do the right thing has been shattered by the experience, and quite frankly, it seems no great loss to me as my expectations were, from the very beginning, exceedingly low. But, at least I made the effort, right?
Somehow, that question now rings hollow, given the cataclysmic failure. I don’t take such failure lightly as a matter of personal pride, but I’m beginning to wonder if it’s worth making another effort, altogether. If I do decide to try again, I can promise you this: there won’t be a church, poor people, government funding, or an unreasonable belief divorced from actual evidence in the ‘innate goodness’ of people involved ever again.
The only things I’ve learned through this experience is that there’s a specific reason why people wallow in poverty and ignorance; it’s because they obviously want to be that way, and because they’re aided and abetted in staying so by a ton of self-delusional little enablers who somehow get paid good money to profess a belief in ‘the Poor’s’ mostly non-existent virtues.