What do cashiers have to do with The March on Washington? It’s probably not what you think.
As a child, I was regularly asked to walk to the neighborhood market a few blocks away to get some groceries for my mother. The grocers knew my family, along with many others in the neighborhood. Still, my mother taught me to always check the receipt (and give it to her), and she taught me how to make change. If the items totaled $17.45 and I gave the grocer (or cashier) $20.00, I had to know how much change I should get back.
As a young child, mental math (as we used to call it) was not my forte. In early elementary school we were taught math facts. We were drilled with flash cards. It was basic memorization of addition and subtraction, and then, multiplication tables, soon to be followed by short division flash cards. As one who never had a flair for remembering numbers or dates, or memorization at all, this mental math approach was arduous and mostly problematic for me. Yes, I did force myself to learn elemental math facts, but I was utterly turned off and avoided whatever I could. At least I did learn the basics. I learned that I had to subtract: $20.00-$17.45= $2.55.
But subtracting in my head (especially when I was quite young) was likely to lead to careless errors. So, my mother taught me how to make change. Essentially, she was teaching me that I could add instead of subtract. I remember struggling with the concept because I didn’t get that I was merely doing addition instead of subtraction. It just seemed like a magic trick that it all added up. Then, when I got the concept of counting back change from the total to the amount I gave, it was no longer like a magic trick–just magic in the way that something perfect seems magical.
Flash forward several years, and cash registers become calculators. Cashiers no longer need to do anything but make sure that if the cash register says $2.55 change, they can count the correct bills and coins. They do not have to figure out the change. For a generation now, cashiers have not had to do any math beyond counting what they are told to provide. On the occasions when I do make cash purchases, I am always dumbfounded that cashiers don’t (and often can’t) make change. They can’t figure the difference. There’s no human agency in making change; no critical thinking. I suppose it doesn’t matter all that much if cash registers are more efficient calculators than the people who use them, but I wonder about this ability (or lack thereof) to make change.
For me, the process of making change resonated more than merely knowing the numbers. That has always been true for me. It struck me this week as we have been commemorating the 50th anniversary of The March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, that while August 28, 1963 marks the historic date, the processes of change inform how we make change. Noting the differences from where we started to where we are now is not sufficient if we are to be the ones who make change. We must understand the processes of change–of additions, subtractions, multiplications and divisions, and miscalculations.
The March on Washington 50 years ago was historic for many reasons. Of course, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream ” speech was pivotal, and remarkable, and truly one of the greatest pieces of oration in our history; but the peaceful participation by so many was equally historic and inspiring. Everyone who rallied at the mall in Washington was participating in making change, and inspired so many others to become agents of change. It is easy to just take the change that others make. It is easy to allow changes to be dictated by technology. It is more important, though, to be able to make change.