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Fake Money, Real Lessons in Power


One year in elementary school, our teacher tried to prop up a unit on financial education by building a classroom economy. Unfortunately, the result was a bitter bidding war.

Our teacher made the money as authentic as possible. With the school logo in the middle, the green bills weren't on cardstock but on flexible paper that we would wad up into our desks. The money was doled out for good test scores, bringing our homework or being diligent with activities during the day.

Each Friday, she'd set up a station where we could shop with our cash, the usual elementary sundry: candy, mounds of plastic in the shape of animals or cars, slap bracelets and pencils.

I was a duteous kid. I did my homework, did well on tests and kept my cash in an envelope, much like how I saved my real money at home. Most weeks, I bought nothing and did the same at school, accruing more fake cash for things that came easily to me. But for some, the money flowed as soon as it came into their hands. Others watched silently as others shopped because the unit we were studying was harder for them, or they were out sick from school and couldn't make money with classroom chores.

You could sense the envy from those who watched and those who could strut through what seemed like aisles of candy — when it was really maybe two desks pushed together. Some kids decided to be magnanimous and slid some of their candy to those who had none. Some would boast and gloat.

I continued to save as the year went on, but the end-of-the-year party had a special twist to the classroom bazaar. Our teacher suggested that parents could allow a student to bring things from home and make our Friday shopping a type of yard sale, bringing in random trinkets to allow us to earn money and then buy other items.

On the day of the yard sale, a classmate brought in the absolute creepiest porcelain ballerina. Only its head, arms, and legs were stiff, with the rest of the body a type of flexible stuffing. Instead of hair, it had a silver cap and stared sadly into mid-distance. All the girls in the class were enamored with it.

On that last day, I held all the power and knew it. My envelope bulged. I bought a nondescript ceramic dove for my mom, then casually went to buy the ballerina. But there was another good little girl who wanted it too. I'd set down cash. She'd match it. I'd set down more. She matched it again. I plopped down all of my 29 bucks. Everyone went silent, and the other girl cried.

I wanted that doll; I got that doll.

My mom, who didn't get the memo about the sale, asked me where I had gotten that hideous doll when she picked me up from school. She didn't understand that I had used all my money on that. Then I showed her the dove. She still has it, and I've scared my children with the ballerina, which is now shoved in a plastic bin of nostalgia in my shed. It was a strange lesson for second grade: Money can be a hammer of power, even wielded by a "good" person making "sound" financial decisions.

Cassie McClure is a writer, millennial, and unapologetic fan of the Oxford comma. Cassie can be reached by email at cassie@mcclurepublications.com.