CONTINUED FROM The Price of Money, Part One.
“Yeah! Come on! I know lots of stuff. I can help you with your credit or bank accounts or budgeting or any other questions you might have about financial things.” I was grasping to find something that might appeal to them. “Whatever you need financially, I can help!” I promised.
“Can you give us money?” piped up the fuchsia-haired girl sarcastically, jumping up in mock excitement before slumping back into her chair almost as quickly and resuming her position at the monitor to check her MySpace messages as though she hadn’t even moved at all.
I gave up.
“Alright,” I said to the scruffy looking kid nearest me who seemed to be paying the most attention, if for no other reason than the close proximity of my mouth to his ears, “just give me five minutes. If you don’t like what I have to say, I’ll stop.”
“I guess I can spare five minutes,” the teen conceded, a little too cheerfully. I got the sinking feeling he was enthusiastically looking forward to my imminent failure to deliver on my promise, but I was equally eager to prove how wrong he was, by exhibiting my street smarts and relating to him, thereby sneaking in the important information he needed before he realized he was learning something.
How wrong I was.
His name was Alan and after we exchanged names, he sat down across from me, and I proceed to give him my spiel explaining to him why I thought he should listen to me. I told him that I had spent my teenage and early adult years addicted to drugs and alcohol and “couch surfing” (and so presumably, I knew something about his situation). After I’d finished with my inspirational tale of recovery and renewal, he reminded me that I had only two minutes left to convince him I had something to offer and then asked me, “What is it you’re supposed to be teaching me again?”
Aha! Here was my chance to impart the sense of importance I had reserved for the occasion.
“I’m here to teach you financial survival skills,” I announced proudly. I sat back in my chair, waiting for what would surely be the resulting effect. He was going to lean forward in his seat with his elbows on the table and his little head propped in his hands with wide-eyed anticipation and eagerness to learn. I just knew it.
Instead, what he said was, “What the hell do you know about financial survival skills?!”
I looked at him dumbfounded, myriad responses rushing through my mind, though none of them could seem to make their way out of my mouth.
Of course I knew about financial survival skills. After all, I hadn’t spent more than ten years in this damn business for nothing! I knew about loans and credit reports and debt and stocks and real estate and banking. I knew plenty! In addition to that, I’d managed to single-handedly destroy my own credit and then rebuild it, so I had the experience I needed to teach these things intelligently!
I was indignant.
He looked at me across the table incredulously. “Have you ever had to live on a dollar a day?” he demanded to know.
I paused. I sucked in a deep breath and held onto it for a minute.
I had not a single thing in my experience with which to respond to this question. No, I had not lived on a dollar a day. Even when I was being an irresponsible slacker, spending a few nights on the couch of each of my friends in clever and calculated rotation, I knew that if I was ever hungry, despite the fact that I’d drank all of my money up, my parents would always send me cash for food, if I’d humbled myself enough to ask. I had absolutely no idea what it was like to sleep under a bridge or actually worry about where my next meal was coming from.
In what seemed like half an hour, but was really only about ten seconds, I gradually came to let go. My ego, my pride and every lesson plan, worksheet, and exercise that I had spent hours preparing for this moment fell away into a pathetic heap at the foot of this young kid whose life experiences and suffering now seemed so large compared to my own small and coddled existence. I realized that none of it mattered. This wasn’t a corporate workshop or a seminar, of which I had given plenty in my business life. This wasn’t some picturesque snapshot of my suburban high school, where the biggest problem was finding a place to smoke half a cigarette without getting caught. This was real. Real kids, real suffering, and a real and desperate need for help.
My company’s mission is to provide the financial skills required to empower people who are actively seeking to improve their lives. By definition, the child that sat before me was seeking to improve his life. He was in the job center of an agency who had told him they could help him, and I had told him the same. It was my job (and still is my job), to ensure that I gave him what he needed, and right at that moment he needed me to be real.
I shook my head slowly. “Nope. I never have. That’s quite a skill. Do you do that?”
“Well,” I said, “I bet you could teach me a thing or two.”
He nodded again, this time more vigorously, and straightened up in his seat with a proud and satisfied grin. “Yep. I bet I could.”
I nodded my head in a gesture of approval, acknowledgment, and genuine respect. Because isn’t that what everyone wants? No one wants to be told that they need help. It’s a much better feeling to have something to offer. That’s why I do what I do, isn’t it? And I don’t really think I’m quite so unique in that basic need. I glanced at the clock. This time, it was my turn to remind him of the promise I had made and I let him know that my five minutes were up.
He thought for a minute, considering me carefully, and then asked, “Do you know anything about credit reports?”
“Sure,” I replied, “what do you want to know?”
I found out that Alan’s dad had used his name and social security number to take out a credit card, had run the balance to its maximum, and never paid it back. He had applied for a full time job and had been screened out by the bad debt on his credit report. Later, I discovered that Alan had grown tired of getting smacked around and screamed at and eventually he hit the streets after wearing out his welcome on the couch’s of his friends’ parents. No one ever bothered to file a runaway report. He was fifteen when he left home and by the time I met him he was almost nineteen, living in transitional housing, working part time, and actively taking steps to pay off his debt and save for an apartment of his own.
I’d like to think I gave Alan some useful tips for going about that process more successfully, but I was the one who learned something that day. He hadn’t taken days to prepare any worksheets or exercises or spent hours on the computer developing an inspirational spiel to impress me, but Alan had been waiting a very long time to teach me the lesson I didn’t even know I needed to hear, and he needed to be heard.
* All names have been changed.
(Part 1) | Part 2