Skip to content

The Lesson Money Couldn’t Buy

Steve Schlafman
Steve Schlafman
3 min read

It was a warm spring morning in 1992. At the time, I was a pudgy and hyperactive seventh grader at Swampscott Middle School. The bell had just sounded and I was slowly meandering to my next class when my best friend, Josh Grab, intercepted me in front of the principal’s office. For some reason I can’t recall, he got in my face and began to push my buttons. I tried to continue on my way but Josh wouldn’t let up. He was relentless. He went on and on and on. After about three minutes, I had finally reached my tipping point and lost control.

In a flash, everything went white. Before I even knew what was happening, I turned around, made a fist and swung my arm with every ounce of energy I had in me. Instead of taking my frustration out on Josh, which I totally should have, I struck a plexiglass art display containing a chaos pendulum built by students at M.I.T. It was a perfect strike. As soon as my tightly clenched fist hit the display, I heard a crack and felt the large object buckle under the force of my haymaker. Within a second, I knew that I had broken something. Thankfully, it wasn’t my hand but then I realized it was an even worse outcome. The large plexiglass case splintered and one of the large panes split in half. The damage had been done. The severity of my stupid behavior hit home when I came to my senses and realized a group of my classmates were suddenly gathering in front of the principal’s office to witness my carnage.

Before I knew what hit me, I heard a loud voice coming down the hallway demanding that I get into the principal’s office immediately. I slowly glanced towards this commanding voice and realized that I was in deep shit. Mr. Andrake, my science teacher and the person responsible for the chaos pendulum, took me by the arm and led me into our vice principal’s office. I nervously sat down and faced Mr. Adrake. He was irate and couldn’t control his anger. He demanded that I solve the mess I created. He also gave me a preview of my punishment: weeks of detention and perhaps even a suspension. Deep down inside I was freaking out and felt hopeless. I was shrinking and the walls were closing in on me.

All of a sudden, an idea popped into my head. What if I offer them money so they can have the plexiglass display repaired? I reasoned, “the school will likely need to hire someone to fix the display before they send it back to M.I.T. I’ll pay for it.” My thirteen-year-old brain thought that seemed like a reasonable and logical solution so I reached deep into my pocket, fished around, pulled out a crinkled $10 bill and slid it on the table towards Mr. Andrake. I sighed, “Take this money as a downpayment. I can go home and get some of my savings so we can repair the mess I made.” He then got very serious, looked at me with disgust and said, “See Schlafman. That’s the problem with you. You just think you can throw money at a problem and it will go away. That’s not how real life works. You need to fix your own problems. No one is going to resolve this situation but yourself.”

Over the next two weeks, I figured out how to clean up the mess I created. I disassembled the display, took precise measurements, purchased several panes of plexiglass, cut them to the right dimensions, smoothed the edges and reassembled everything. After two weeks of problem solving, hard work and attention to detail, the chaos pendulum was finally back in its display case without a scratch. Life was back to normal. To this day, I’m convinced that M.I.T had no clue anything had happened to their science project. Money didn’t fix the problem. I did.

Nearly twenty-five years have passed since that day but I still look back on that experience with a tremendous amount of gratitude and pride rather than shame and embarrassment. I was fortunate to learn at a very young age that money will never solve your problems. Instead, you need to take ownership, roll up your sleeves and just figure it out. Mr. Andrake could have easily suspended me or thrown me in detention for a month but I wouldn’t have walked away a better human. In closing, I’d like us all to take a moment and celebrate all our teachers in life. Through their selfless and tireless work they help all of us become better people both inside and outside the classroom.


Steve Schlafman Twitter

Exec coach. Writer. Student of Change.