Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Johnny, Jenny & Neeha

My kids and I like to play a game called Johnny, Jenny and Neeha.

Johnny, Jenny and Neeha are three good friends. Today they are playing with marbles. Johnny has one blue marble and two cats eye marbles. Jenny has three orange marbles. Neeha has three blue marbles. How many marbles are in the game? How many are blue? Neeha loses a marble to Johnny, how many do each of them have? What colours?

You get the picture.

It’s also an empathy game – Neeha lost all her marbles and she’s crying - what should her friends do? And an ethics game –it’s snack time but Jenny only has two cookies for all three of them – what's fair? Which brings us back to math…

It’s fun. It’s challenging. Wanna try the grown-up version?

Johnny, Jenny and Neeha are three good friends living in Canada. They’ve been friends since high school – now, they are 25.

After graduation, Johnny went to college and has been working in the technology sector. He recently achieved his PMP certification with support from his employer. He earns $60,000 a year, and last month he paid the last payment on his student loan. He recently bought a condo about twenty minutes’ drive from his work, and drives a 4-door GM with locally-made parts. His job generally requires 40 hours, but on average he works slightly more than that. Johnny feels that he is struggling financially and does not have enough time for leisure. He misses his friends.

Jenny’s life took a different turn. In high school, Jenny had been one of the “smart ones.” Unfortunately, she and her boyfriend had one episode of unprotected sex during her second year of university, which resulted in pregnancy, marriage, and abandonment of her higher education. Their daughter Heather turned two the year Grant graduated – the same year the twins were born. With student loans and expenses on one new-grad salary, the family had struggled. But it was only when Grant was diagnosed with cancer last year that everything had fallen apart. The expenses and loss of income meant more debt, which Grant’s life insurance had barely covered after the funeral expenses. Now, Jenny subsists with her children on social assistance. They rent a two bedroom apartment in Jenny’s sister’s house for $760 per month plus half the utilities. Jenny watches her sister’s kids after school, and in exchange they are sometimes invited for a meal upstairs to supplement her groceries.

Neeha met Johnny and Jenny during a drama production in their senior year of high school. It was also her first year in Canada, and these friends had become important to her. They helped her with English, but more importantly, they explained the social norms of high school. Neeha never expected to go to university. She felt her language skills would make it too challenging, and her parents did not believe in post-secondary education for girls. They encouraged her to marry, but Neeha was unwilling, which caused a rift with her family that extended to some of her other friends and relatives. Neeha has lived on her own for four years, in a one-bedroom apartment not far from downtown. She pays $660/month plus utilities. She holds three part-time jobs – at a bookstore, as a caterer’s assistant, and once a month doing basic bookkeeping for her uncle. She averages $11.00/hour, and works about 48 hours a week – she can’t remember the last time she had a day off. Neeha uses public transportation. She tries to spend within her means, but several times this year she has put her groceries on credit and failed to pay the balance.

Johnny, Jenny and Neeha are meeting today for lunch. This is a rare occurrence – Jenny’s kids are with their aunt, and Neeha has no shift scheduled until 5pm. Johnny almost had to cancel but managed to avoid getting roped into a meeting over lunch. When he arrives a few minutes late, Jenny and Neeha are hugging and laughing, so he joins in.

They are three good friends.

“How have you been?” Neeha asks Johnny.

“So busy! I’ve been working like crazy in the evenings and on weekends to get my PMP, and last week I finally got it!”

“Congratulations! What’s a PMP?” asks Jenny.

“Oh, a certificate in project management. Now they’re giving me my first big project. I’m excited, and nervous, you know? I’m hoping I’ll have some more time to myself now that I’m done those certification tests.”

“Time? You want to talk about having no time, try having three jobs!” says Neeha playfully. But Johnny doesn’t feel playful – his feelings are hurt.

“Hey, you know, it’s stressful at my company. They expect a lot. I work hard.”

“I’m sorry,” says Neeha, “I don’t mean to say you don’t work hard. But you must realize it’s not the same. I have to piece my jobs together and I don’t even have any benefits.”

Now Johnny is feeling defensive.

“Look, I worked hard to get my diploma and now my certification, to prove myself at work, and I’m making the lowest in my whole department. My condo fees are crazy. Maybe I should have three jobs.” He tries to laugh at his own lame joke, but the air feels tense.

Jenny has been quietly watching the exchange between her friends. She speaks carefully.

“I know what you mean, about being stretched for time. I feel like I spend every day just figuring out how to make sure we have something to eat tomorrow, and juggling the bills so nothing gets turned off.”

Neeha and Johnny knew that their friend was struggling, but hadn’t realized it was so bad. They both look down, feeling a little ashamed to have been complaining.

“But, don’t you get social assistance?” asks Neeha. “And some kind child supplement or something?”

Jenny sighs.

“Yes,” she replies quietly. “Now that I’ve figured out the systems a bit better, we have about $270 a week after taxes, from different programs. It sounds like it should be enough, but it never is. You wouldn’t believe how much three little kids can eat!” Jenny also tries a laugh to lighten the mood, but it falls flat.

Neeha looks away. The truth is, she has a pang of envy. For the past few weeks she’s been lucky to take home $300, even working every shift she can get. Last week, she took home less than $400 after clocking 48 hours among all her jobs. And here’s Jenny, making almost as much for sitting home all day!

Neeha immediately feels bad. She can’t imagine trying to get by on even $50 less, and she doesn’t have kids to feed. Still, a small part of her stubbornly notes that having kids was Jenny’s own choice. Is it fair for Jenny to expect to be paid for doing nothing?

Johnny feels uncomfortable with the whole conversation. The numbers don’t mean much to him. He figures that Neeha and Jenny both have very low housing costs – Jenny lives with her sister, so who knows if she even pays rent, while Neeha’s small, bohemian apartment can’t cost too much. He, on the other hand, pays over $400 a month in condo fees on top of his mortgage and property taxes. For Johnny, it feels like comparing apples to oranges. He can’t relate.

Jenny feels her friends’ ambivalence and wishes she’d kept quiet. Never have the three friends been in such different places. They pretend to read the menu they all know by heart. Jenny starts to wonder – are our situations really so different?

Questions to consider:

1) Which of the friends has the most free time?
2) Which of the friends has the most money left after expenses?
3) Which of the friends contributes the most to society?
4) Which of the friends would be considered a good example for children to follow?

Tomorrow, we explore these questions further...