For the past 12 weeks, I’ve been picking up litter in my neighborhood.
The first time around produced a large shopping bag full of beer bottles and cans, empty one-ounce liquor bottles, fast food wrappers, a waterlogged lighter, a few empty cigarette boxes and a used item that I did not want to touch (even with my rubber gloves). Using a food wrapper as a buffer, I picked it up muttering, “Better me than a child or dog.”
It all started in January and February, when my school’s Associated Student Body sponsored an activity showcasing a famous quote from Martin Luther King, Jr.: “Life’s most persistent and urgent question is, ‘What are you doing for others?’”
On paper cutouts of hands, staff and students wrote pledge of service to others. My paper cutout hung in our commons’ display case with at least 200 students’ “Lend-a-Hand” pledges. Vows ranged from donating food to our local food bank to being nicer to siblings. I made a promise to pick up garbage in my neighborhood for three months.
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With every empty liquor bottle I deposited in my plastic bag, I internally muttered reproach, feeling both compassion and contempt. The second and third garbage collection trips produced less litter, therefore my faith in my community seem renewed.
But the fourth time I stepped out, I chose another route. I barely made it two-thirds of the way before my bag was laden with rain-soaked deli trays, more empty liquor bottles, crushed beer cans, plastic cups with lids and straws, a soiled, half-buried diaper with moss growing on it, and the list continues.
Each time I’ve collected my neighborhood trash, my unwelcome righteous indignation rears its ugly head. I have to summon the perspective I use in the school lunchroom.
I remember that the majority of students do pick up after themselves. The small percentage who don’t either impulsively forget about their garbage or improperly believe it’s a custodian’s job to clean up after them.
If the garbage were to go unchecked and kids unmonitored, soon the tables and floors in the lunchroom would be covered in trash. So, I remind the same students to clean up after themselves.
Always one or two students will offer to pick up the trash, regardless of whether it’s theirs or not, which further inspires me to get out into my neighborhood and do something for others.
After a few weeks of picking up trash, my muttering became muffled. I found that when I focused on creating a better environment for kids, my trash bag felt lighter.
As far back as I can remember, our ASB has sponsored activities in January honoring Dr. King. Throughout our region, students and school staff are reminded not to take our freedoms for granted and to acknowledge the sacrifices of others.
When the assemblies and activities are over and three months of picking up garbage have been completed, how do I continue asking, “What am I doing for others?”
I wouldn’t have lent a hand by picking up garbage without inspiration from students. I would have taken for granted the national holidays I am given.
Memorial Day is six weeks away and I find myself asking: “What am I doing for the military personnel who died for my freedoms?”
For the next six weeks, this is my Lend-a-Hand pledge: I will collect garbage near a cemetery in their honor and create a better environment for them.
Heidi Fedore of Lakewood is a middle school principal in Gig Harbor. She is one of six reader columnists who write for this page. Reach her by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.