By Bernadette McHenry
My education in thrift began in the Philadelphia public schools. I taught in a massive, old building where the heat ran too hot or not at all and the ceilings leaked in hard rain. Though staff and students alike chipped in regularly to brighten the dismal physical environment, everything was falling apart.
One day, finding a torn cover on a textbook, I pulled out my tape to fix it and flew into an impromptu lecture on carelessness. I cited the cost of books against the list of endless repairs the school needed.
With my limited classroom budget, I had become a master of thrift. I knew how to repurpose supplies and pinch pennies, and I wanted my students to learn it too. I wanted them to share my pride in providing for them, which was at least as great as my frustration with a city that ignores their needs. I expected my words would be met with bored faces. Instead, I saw instantly that they understood, and they were interested. This was relevant and immediate to them.
I started to incorporate thrift into my lessons. I taught about household resources in the Golden Age of Immigration, collective conservation during the World Wars, and consumer budgeting in the Cold War era. Whenever the administration welcomed a guest speaker who could teach a practical economic skill, I volunteered my classroom as a host. Above all, I stressed personal responsibility and the power of an individual to effect positive change in a community. I know my lessons had an impact, because I still receive letters from my graduates thanking me for what they learned in my class and asking for further advice.
To me, that's what thrift is all about. It's about practicing financial and social responsibility with an eye to the next generation. It combines traditional wisdom with innovation, and it demands diligence and dedication.
Here in Philadelphia, this is Thrift Week - a celebration of industry, frugality, and generosity held annually since 1916. National Thrift Week reminded people to work hard, spend wisely, and be charitable. The tradition faded from popularity in the latter part of the century, but was revived here in 2011 by a coalition seeking to reinvigorate the spirit of American thrift.
A hundred years ago, thrift education provided students with domestic and financial skills in the vein of home economics. Today, thrift must incorporate rigorous academic lessons in social studies and literacy with tangible skills that will help young people live sustainably as adults: how to plan for achieving career goals; how to choose a savings institution and navigate interest and credit; and how to research consumer decisions with regard to budget, well-being, and the environment.
This year, I am celebrating Thrift Week as a disciple and teacher of thrift. This ethic is woven throughout our national history, and I've found it in my own life as well. I've come to see thrift as a holistic approach to life, and its most vital aspect is its potential to transform a community. Collective hard work can turn a vacant lot into a community garden or paint and repair rundown schools.
Philadelphia has no shortage of need, but neither has it a shortage of people willing to donate effort and resources to our neighborhoods and our children. Thrift can help save this city, and it can start with taping up a textbook.