At my special education school where I teach, classroom staff look keenly forward to the daily arrival of the snack cart.  Devised by our therapists as a great way for students to work on their individual O.T. and speech goals, this modest little cart packs a lot of healthy (and some not so healthy) little snacks and beverages that can both augment a lunch or satisfy someone’s hunger cravings when lunch still seems distant.

And as a teacher, what I cling to most of all with this snack cart is the opportunity to provide my various students with real-life money math transaction experience as well as valuable social skill interaction.

To this end, I am extremely prone to “impulse shopping” whereby I am easily talked in to trying out certain items and living up to my reputation as always liking potato chips and iced tea to go with my lunch.

And coins are at the heart of it.  Which is why, on most any given school day, you will often find me scooping out a large handful of change from my right pants pocket.  In fact, I am notorious for the hallway alerting sound of coins jingling in my pocket when I transition around the school.  By now, I find it very grounding to load up my trousers with coins when I leave the house in the morning–and it is every bit as essential a part of my wardrobe as my belt, wallet and handkerchief.

Beyond the practical aspect of practicing money math though, there is NOTHING in this world like the hand to hand exchange of coins for approximating the tangible give-and-take exchange of a solid transaction done well.  Because it is gloriously sloppy and might just lead to a roomful of people chipping in to help you count out just the right amount.

In fact if I were a deep thinker, I might even suggest that payment with lots of coins satisfies some primordial need for us constantly evolving humans to still practice hunting and pecking methods together as a collective group as we sift through our piles for the right combination.

And when one is digging into a pile of coins, one manual transfer at a time, the act of doing so can almost feel like a worthy substitute for the ancient art of bartering (minus the bickering and animal exchange) due to the collaboration involved (“if you give me 2 dimes and a nickel I will give you a quarter!”).

So, you can understand my dismay over the past few decades when I started seeing more and more troubling trends in which person-to-person coin exchanges were eliminated from the process.  One of the first troubling signs of this I recall seeing decades ago was from the fast food chain Wendy’s sporting their maddingly efficient, automated coin return machines to get costumers on their way faster.  Imagine that!  No germs are passed and no awkward pauses occur because no hand-offs need be attempted!

“NEXT!” barks the clerk.

Of course, in today’s age, the rule book keeps getting re-written on how retail outlets will opt to treat their payment process.  Why just this week I went in to a local Panera where when you walk in you are immediately encouraged to bypass the human being clerks and SELF-ORDER your own meal on a computer screen–with nary a greeting required.  What a strange concept: turning one’s back on the clerks that face you so as to do a discreetly, silent touch screen transaction on the other side of the lobby!

Yes, all these smart changes smack me as being far TOO smooth and antiseptic in its efficient detouring around the human interaction element.

But then, I may represent nothing more than a whining dinosaur that simply can’t wrap my head around all the changes in time to adapt and save myself.  It all makes me think of those apocryphal Bob Dylan lines, “Your old road is rapidly aging.  Please get out of the new one if you can’t lend your hand” in his anthem “The Times They Are a Changing.”

Yikes!  This begs the question–“Does our change really have to be a part of all this change?”

Still, onward I must go, faithfully looking forward to remaining as backwards as possible when it comes to the public market place.

Because to me, a coin carrying person signifies someone that is humble and doesn’t take for granted a single penny–who will scrounge for that last 6 cents in order to make a clerk’s life easier for handing out dollar bills for change.

So let others complain of “being nickel and dimed.”  I consider it great company and an honor.

Besides, we should be careful with what we wish for when it comes to seeking space aged efficiency.  All this private, “easy payment” with plastic and other electronic transactions might also serve in hastening our self-inflicted isolation and loneliness a bit faster–as we say goodbye to all that time honored tradition of performing public transactions, coin by coin, with all the closure that it entails.

Which is why, for as long as I can, I will be stretching and bending down to spot and pick-up every penny I can gather in the parking lots.

Who knows?  It might just save my life one day; as long as I don’t find myself in a ship wreck and discover that my coin laden pockets are too heavy for me to float adequately!

As a special education teacher who has seen way too many curriculum changes based on the whims of fickle technology and cultural trends—witness the fading art of check writing, using a pay phone and how to eat better using a food pyramid—I still believe coins to be one of the best tickets I know for riding the SOCIAL SKILLS train out in public.

So, please remember, if ever a snack cart suddenly gets wheeled into your orderly and meticulously planned classroom, don’t act put out and shirk from meeting the challenge.

Stop what you are doing and fish around for coins in your pocket.  You might just find that it is these unscripted moments that are the ripest for providing valuable contextual learning as well as kick starting your day on the right track!






About John Watts

I like to write transcendental community based essays and stories along with photo journalism pieces.
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