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Making Change

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I have a new schedule these days, commuting to the university several days a week for late afternoon classes. I find myself driving home after suppertime most evenings, and have gotten in the habit of stopping at a particular fast-food restaurant around 8:30 p.m. for a sandwich or snack. The last time I caved in to one of these drive-through dinner urges, my total was $7.11. I gave the cashier with the Janet Jackson headset a ten, plus a dime and a penny from my change stash in the center console.

She gave me two singles and a handful of coins in return—and said my cheese sticks would take a little longer. I called her back to the window, and explained that she'd given me the wrong change. "I gave you $10.11," I explained, in my friendliest teacher voice. "I get three dollars back." What I now got back was a blank look.

"Here," I said, holding out my hand helpfully, "take this change back, give me a dollar, and we'll be square." She accepted the change without comment, then closed and left the window.

She returned with another woman, who was wearing a different uniform. The woman shot me a nasty look, and then used a key to open the cash register. I could see her counting out bills and coins—a process that took perhaps three minutes—and muttering. Finally, she opened the window and said, "We gave you correct change."

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"Well, no—you didn't," I said, and once again ran through details of the exchange, a math problem that I would peg at approximately the level of your average 4th grader. The woman folded her arms and said that her count on the register "came out exact." I pointed out that if that were true, the cashier had entered the wrong amount tendered or made some other error. "You don't understand—it doesn't work that way," she snarled, slamming the window shut.

At this point, of course, I was down a dollar and some cheese sticks, and cars were beginning to back up in the drive-thru lane. The cashier had disappeared and the woman came to the window again, and handed me my sack and bottled water without comment. When I refused to drive off, she re-opened the window and said "What?"

In a very small voice, I said "I'm not leaving until you give me my dollar." She pulled a dollar from the drawer and said "Are you happy now? This is coming out of her pay! Now leave before I call the cops."

A Dying Skill

I was five miles down the road before I realized I had finally had the "cashier who can't make change" experience. This is the apocryphal story told by every policymaker who would like us to believe that weak and ineffectual public schools have produced a workforce full of dim bulbs. In the old days, the story goes, we all learned to add and subtract. These kids today, however, don't learn basic math; they're too busy punching buttons on their calculators to actually think about whether the answer makes sense.

Did some math teacher in that cashier's past let her down by failing to teach her how to do the simple mental arithmetic involved in making change? Whose fault was it that I had to beg for my dollar?

Well, gee. You could start by blaming whoever hired both the manager and the cashier, and then failed to train them in the art of customer service. Everyone makes technical mistakes (including spacing out or punching the wrong keys), but what happened to me was an outright failure to understand the basic nature of commerce—about 95% common sense and manners, and perhaps 5% mathematics.

Like many people of my generation, I suspect, I automatically figure my change without looking at the register. I also pay cash, write checks, and have never owned a debit card. It has occurred to me that perhaps learning to make change is a dying skill, a vestige of a time before plastic cards and digital readers make cash superfluous—certainly nothing we'd waste our valuable time on in a school system dedicated to "higher-order thinking skills."

A couple of people I've told this story to have asked why I didn't just take the proffered coins and write off the eleven cents. Why make an issue of such a miniscule amount of money? I have to admit the incident bothered me—a lot. I wrote several angry letters, in my head, but have settled for just not going back to the restaurant, ever.

What mostly nags at me, however, is very much a teacher thing: I had the right answer to the problem, and nobody believed me.

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