Magazine article The New Yorker

New Math

Magazine article The New Yorker

New Math

Article excerpt

Fourteen-year-olds frequently accuse their parents of moral dereliction; parents do not frequently respond by selling their house and donating half the proceeds to villagers in Ghana. But such was the response of Kevin and Joan Salwen, of Atlanta, to their daughter, Hannah. Kevin and Hannah went on to write a book, "The Power of Half," in which they encourage other families to do something similar. And recently they carried this incendiary message to the teen-agers of Marymount, a private Catholic girls' school on Fifth Avenue, across from the Met.

The Salwens stood in the school chapel. They wore jeans; the Marymount girls wore kilts. They told their story. One day in 2006, Kevin and Hannah pulled up at a stoplight. To their left was a homeless man, to their right a guy in a Mercedes coupe. Hannah said, "Dad, if that man didn't have such a nice car, then that homeless man could have a meal." Kevin said, "Yes, but if we didn't have such a nice car that man could have a meal." This sank in rather more deeply than he'd intended. By dinnertime, Hannah was all worked up. She didn't want to be a family that just talked about doing good, she said. She wanted to be a family that actually did something. Kevin and Joan explained that they did a lot: they volunteered at the food bank; they wrote big checks to charities; after Hurricane Katrina, they let a family of refugees stay in their basement. Hannah rolled her eyes. That was annoying, so Joan said, "What do you want to do, sell the house?" And Hannah said, "Yeah! That is exactly what I want to do."

"We don't expect anyone else to sell their house," Hannah assured the Marymount girls, whose parents might not have appreciated a demand by their offspring to donate eight hundred thousand dollars (half the value of the Salwens' house) to charity. "We know that's a ridiculous thing to do. But everyone has something they can afford to give away. If you watch six hours of TV a week, maybe you cut that down to three hours and spend three with your family volunteering at a homeless shelter."

A girl with a ponytail raised her hand. "Have you ever regretted selling your house?" she asked.

"There are some things that I miss," Hannah said. "We had an elevator that led up to my room, and it was really cool, because nobody else had an elevator in their room. …

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