the allure of the vending machines

Last week, I taught an all-day camp in writing and public speaking for fifth graders. The camp was held at a community center and there were a variety of summer camps going on at the same time—down the hall was Crafts, outside was Nature Explorers, and the next room over was a Dance Camp for adorable five-year-olds in pouffy dresses. {They danced to the theme song from Moana over and over and it became the soundtrack of my week, looping through my mind on repeat.} One thing that all the camps had in common was that the kids were obsessed—I mean, seriously obsessed—with the vending machines.

There were two vending machines in the narrow hallway next to the public bathrooms. One was filled with drinks and the other with snacks, but they might as well have been filled with gold for how they mesmerized all the kiddos who wandered past them en route to the restroom. The other teachers and I would share sympathetic smiles as we coaxed and herded our respective students away from the vending machines and back to class. Often this required physically positioning our bodies between the kids and the machines, blocking the view through the glass.

Sometimes, after camp ended for the day, I would leave the restroom and see a small child proudly showing off the vending machines to her mom or dad, pride in her voice as she named the various options. “But what did you do at camp today?” the parent would ask in confusion. I always sent home notes to the parents of my students, detailing what we did in class, urging them to look through the binder and see all the progress their child was making. I could envision, when asked what they did all day, a student answering, “We played on the playground and Steve got Hot Cheetos!” It was true: I always took them to the playground during our lunch break.

The same kids who announced, “I’m bored!” within seven minutes of a classroom writing activity could easily spend twenty minutes just staring up at the array of salty and sweet choices {perhaps, for some, forbidden choices}, their faces awash in the fluorescent glow, imagining ways to con the machine into giving them free food and chattering about what they would choose if their parents let them bring money the next day. I quickly learned not to let a student go alone to the restroom—that hallway would snag his attention and stop his legs like quicksand, and he would never return. Sending pairs of kids was not any more successful. Those vending machines were like the Vegas Strip to a gambler; they just could not help themselves. I pretty much always had to walk down the hall myself and drag them away from the colors and lights.

What is it about those vending machines? I wondered to myself, driving home midway through the week. Some of the kids bring Fritos in their lunch—why do the same Fritos have so much more appeal behind the glass?

I arrived home, exhausted, and sat down at my computer to answer a few emails before starting dinner. However, I soon found myself clicking over to Facebook. No news or notifications. Nothing to see here. Still, that didn’t stop me from checking again on my phone two or three times while making dinner. It was the allure of possibility—maybe the next time I checked, there would be a new notification and my brain would bask in that dopamine hit.

And, just like that, I realized—I was caught up in those same vending machine lights. So many of us are. We may not be standing in front of actual vending machines, giddily contemplating the choices, but metaphorically we are just like those kids staring up at the sodas and chips. We are sucked in by the possibility and the glamour of what we don’t have. Once we do get it, often the appeal melts away. The excitement of the Facebook notification disappears once we click on it. One of my students, who had been salivating all week over the beef jerky packages in the vending machine, was finally given money by his mother on Friday to buy something for a snack. I was shocked when he only ate a little bit of the beef jerky, then tossed the rest in the trash. “It tastes weird,” he said with a shrug when I asked him why he threw his prized snack away. All week long he’d been staring at the package through the glass. Then, when he got what he’d been dreaming about, it was no longer special but ordinary, and he was disappointed.

air hockey, guys, games, guys weekend

Teaching kids, I’m always struck by how much they remind me of adults. How much do we ever, truly, grow up beyond our child selves? Both kids and adults find creative ways to avoid discomfort as much as possible. And, guess what? Learning and growing and evolving are uncomfortable.

So many times, when teaching a new concept, I would watch a student make great progress: write an amazing hook for their essay; analyze the author’s purpose of an editorial; prepare a list of pro’s and con’s for a persuasive essay. But then, discomfort would hit. The student would feel tired. The student would want a distraction. The student would raise his or her hand. “Mrs. Woodburn, can I go to the bathroom?” Of course I would let them go—I never prevent students from going to the bathroom if needed—but, 9 times out of 10, what they would really be asking was: “Can I go look at the vending machines, and dream about the possibility of a snack I might get tomorrow, because that is so much easier than muscling through this sticky learning process right here, right now?” After a few minutes, I would walk down the hall to check on him. I would find him gazing up, awash in the fluorescent lights. I would gently prod him back to class, back to the discomfort, back to the growing.

That is what we need to do for ourselves, too. We need to be the teacher coming to check on ourselves. When you notice yourself craving a distraction—wanting to take a break from a project you’re working on and check your email, or browse Facebook, or scroll through Instagram, or even do something “productive” like wash those dirty dishes or organize your closet—ask yourself what the root of your desire truly is. Are you actually at a good stopping point, with that joyfully wrung-out feeling, when a break to recharge and rest your mind is needed? Or are you simply feeling uncomfortable or afraid, craving the “easy out” of a quick distraction, that will only leave you feeling restless or depleted when you eventually make your way back to your important work?

Of course, it is necessary and fun and important to daydream about the future. Sometimes we all need to take time to bask in the glow of the vending machines, and all the colorful options and choices that we might make tomorrow, or next month, or next year. Sometimes we need to celebrate the allure of possibility.

But we can’t spend all of our time there. We can’t live in our daydreams for the future. We need to do the tough, uncomfortable, sometimes boring, sometimes grinding, day-in and day-out work to get there. Only then will we turn our exciting dreams into reality.

And once we do reach those dreams? Once we do feed the quarters into the vending machine, make our selection, and watch the item fall from its perch and into our lives? We need to appreciate it. We need to look around at our lives and be grateful for what we do have—for all that we once coveted and now might take for granted. We need to savor every bite of that beef jerky. And then go run around on the playground with our friends. And then head back into the classroom to keep learning and growing, learning and growing, always.

 

Your turn {if you want}:

  • What are the “vending machines” in your life?
  • What is one daydream you have for the future?
  • What steps might you take—starting today, right now—to make that dream a reality?

2 thoughts on “the allure of the vending machines

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