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Earlier this month, I volunteered at my son’s elementary school Book Fair. Since I haven’t worked retail in 20 years, this felt like I was playing store. But working the cash register (while narrating my every move: “press taxable sale, scan item, hit okay…”) wasn’t my only volunteer requirement.

When a class came in, we would help them fill out their wish lists. Some kids—namely kindergarteners and first graders—had a hard time differentiating between making a wish list and making a purchase. Sometimes they thought they should be able take the book home once I wrote it down for them even though there had been no cash transaction.

This was just one instance of a series I should call “Kids Don’t Understand Commerce.” For example, one boy brought three books to the cash register and handed me a $20 bill. I scanned his books and gave him his change: $1.64. He was thrilled that he received what looked like more than what he gave me—one piece of paper exchanged for a piece of paper and 7 coins. Before heading back to class, he looked behind me at a display of bookmarks and asked if he could get one of those, too. With tax, the bookmark was 55 cents. I scanned it and asked him to hand me two quarters and one dime. “Why?” he asked as he protectively clutched his handful of change. “Because you have to pay for the bookmark,” I answered. “But I won’t have as much money,” he protested. “That’s what paying for things is, buddy. Hey, I’ll give you a nickel back.” He reluctantly agreed and probably went on to sign up for a credit card with an astronomically high interest rate.

And don’t get me started on sales tax. It’s bad enough that the kids can barely find the tiny price of the books on the back corner, but when it comes to adding sales tax, they look at me like I’m a total scam artist. This was a normal scenario from Book Fair Week:

ME: Here’s the price…$4.99

KID: Good. I have $4.

ME: Well, $4.99 is really $5.

KID: So, I need another dollar?

ME: Actually you need like $1.50 more because of the tax.

KID: Tax?

ME: Yeah, it’s about a 10 cents for every dollar.

KID: Why?

ME: Tax is for…well, we use money collected from taxes for… (reaching in my pocket) here’s some money. Go get your book.

There were some money savvy kids coming through the Book Fair. A couple of sisters came in to shop together. Their mom sent $22, instructing them each to spend $10 with the rest to go for that crazy sales tax. The younger sister brought two books to the counter, totaling $9.98 (before tax) and the older sister brought one book which cost $9.99 (also before tax). Older Sister said, “Go put one of your books back. You can’t have two.” Younger Sister didn’t like that idea. I asked Older Sister what her plans were for the leftover money. “I want to get two books,” she whispered confidentially. Unbeknownst to her I am aware of the wily ways of an older sister, so I instructed Younger Sister to bring her two books to me. I checked her out and she went back to class (grinning triumphantly), leaving Older Sister with her $11 to spend. Older Sister learned not to mess with a Book Fair Volunteer. We don’t play.

I enjoy working at the Book Fair. It’s not because I get to play store and it’s definitely not because I get to do math in my head. I like it because it involves two of my favorite things—kids and books. I like seeing their excitement when they get to buy the book they picked out. I like hearing them tell me about their favorite characters and series and the kinds of books they like the best. Kids and books make for a pretty magical combination.



Volunteering at the Book Fair


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