Rebecca Chapman teaches a daily economics lesson to her fourth-graders at a public elementary school near Houston. She assigns them jobs — pencil guard, errand runner, class sheriff. She lets them run small businesses — cubby cleaning, baked goods — and make purchases with fake money. She even taxes the profits.
On March 25, the lesson was a little different. She turned that day to the issue that had captivated and infuriated Americans: the millions in retention bonuses paid to employees at AIG Financial Products, the unit whose risky deals had wrecked giant insurer American International Group.
Chapman stood before her students and stoked the populism in their young souls. Pretend you are taxpayers, she said. Now, think about AIG paying bonuses even after the government had committed $180 billion to bailing it out.
"Can you believe it?" she asked.
The children hissed and moaned, sounding much like the elected officials and talking heads who had been eager to out-outrage one another.
"I got them all riled up," said Chapman, 29.
Then she turned the tables.
"What if you were an AIG employee?" she asked. Imagine if you had not been involved in the deals that ruined the company but were left to clean up the mess. What if you had to pay back money you felt you had earned? What if your family had received death threats?
One boy raised his hand.
"Can we write them and let them know that it's going to be okay?" asked the boy, who clearly doesn't have a 401(k).
Empathy is fleeting in fourth-graders, so the teacher embraced it. She broke out crayons and paper. The children adorned their messages with peace symbols and smiley faces, rainbows and vivid red hearts. "Hi AIG. Not all of USA hates you," wrote one student. "We know you're not villains," wrote another. "Keep working hard, dudes! Keep eating your vegatabos!" advised a third.
Chapman mailed the nearly 30 cards from her school to the outcasts of the financial world at AIG. (She requested that the Washington Post not identify the school, worried that the gesture might attract some of the ugly phone calls and threats that have been visited upon AIG.)
"I hope this package doesn't arrive on April Fool's Day," she wrote, "because this really isn't a joke."
The cards now hang in the lunchrooms at AIG offices in Connecticut and London.
"There were more than a few moist eyes and tight throats," employee Patrick O'Neill wrote to the class. "To have reached out to us in such a heartfelt way is really a testament to your individual and collective humanity."
Gerry Pasciucco, the current leader of AIG-FP, also wrote to say that the gesture had deeply touched his staff. He signed off with a simple message: