Monday, December 20, 2021

I Found A Wallet

Not long ago, I found a wallet in the street. It contained a little cash, a couple receipts for minor purchases, and cards of various types, including a Washington State driver's license bearing an address that wasn't too far away. I swear I didn't snoop, but I couldn't help but see the man's photo. He looked young and appeared well-groomed. He looked earnest to me, maybe even sweet, a man you would trust. 

I imagined this young man discovering that his wallet was missing. Would he miss the cash? It wasn't very much, but maybe it was all he had. It didn't feel right to sort through the various cards, but I figured at least one of them was a debit or credit card. I wondered if I could get the wallet back to him before he went through the hassle of replacing it.

This story I was telling myself about the wallet's owner, whether true or not, motivated me to want to get the wallet back to him. The address was about two miles away.

In 2009, a psychologist by the name of Richard Wiseman of the University of Hertfordshire performed an experiment in which he "lost" 240 wallets around the city of Edinburgh to learn how many were returned. In all, 42 percent were returned to their "rightful" owners. If the wallets contained a family portrait or the photo of a puppy the odds of being returned increased somewhat, but if they contained the photo of a baby a whopping 88 percent found their way back.

A later, larger study that involved 17,000 lost wallets in 40 different countries found national variations in the overall return rate, but also, contrary to the predictions of academic economists, that the presence of cash in the wallet increased the odds of it being returned. Not only that, but the more cash in the wallet, the more likely it was to be returned.

I didn't know any of this when I decided to return the wallet I'd found, but in looking back, that identification photo personalized it for me and the cash made me feel like not returning the wallet would be the moral equivalent of stealing.

The man who answered the apartment door associated with the address was not the man from the photo, so I asked for the man by name. He shrugged, so I told him why I was there. He asked to see the photo and we stood together looking in the face of my earnest young man. No, he told me, the guy didn't look familiar. Then he suggested I try finding him on Facebook. Back home, I indeed found his Facebook page. I learned from it that he was an immigrant from Mexico, that he was from a small village, and that most of his "friends" were from that village as well. I sent him a message.

After a few days without an answer, I took the wallet to school and told the kids the story. This led to a general discussion about things being lost and found. In fact, one boy had found a glass doorknob on the way to school that morning, which he had been showing around, but, he insisted with an edge of defensiveness in his voice, "I don't know who lost it." 

A classmate chimed in, "That means you can keep it. If you find something on the ground and you look around and there is no body there, then that means it's yours."

For the most part the kids agreed. They had all found things. Most of them could name things in their bedrooms at home that they had found. At one point, however, one of the kids, referring to the glass doorknob asked, "What if that's a real diamond?" There was a moment of silence before the boy who had found it replied a bit glumly, "Then I can't keep it," his reason being that it would then be "too valuable." I asked, showing them the money, "Is this wallet too valuable?" Yes, they all agreed, it was too valuable to keep, with one boy adding, "And it has his picture in it." Plus, he added, "He'll be sad if he doesn't get it back."

At the time, I knew nothing of the wallet studies mentioned above, although I did know that academic economists tend to purvey a grim, mercenary view of human nature, one that rarely jibes with the view I get from hanging out with young children. These kids had it figured out: if you can return it to its rightful owner, then you return it; if you can't find the rightful owner, you get to keep it; if it's particularly valuable, you make an extra effort to return it. 

As I made my way home from school that day, I wondered if this wallet was valuable enough to go to extra efforts. The amount of money meant little to me, but it might mean a lot to its rightful owner. I considered taking to the local police station, which might have been the right thing to do, but I really couldn't imagine that it would result in a reunion. I finally decided that I had no choice but to hang on to the wallet and hope the guy finally checked his Facebook page.

Several days passed without a response. His wallet tormented me. What would I do if I didn't hear from him? How long should I wait? I figured I would eventually cut up the cards and donate the cash to charity, because the kids were right, I couldn't keep it.

Then finally the young man reached out. He worked in my neighborhood so we agreed he would swing by my building. He was, as the kids predicted, happy to get it back. He didn't ask me where I'd found it, nor did he check on the contents in my presence. I have no idea what the wallet meant to him, but I hope it caused him to feel better about humankind.


If you liked reading this post, you might also enjoy one of my books. To find out more, Click here! 
"Few people are better qualified to support people working in the field of early childhood education than Teacher Tom. This is a book you will want to keep close to your soul." ~Daniel Hodgins, author of Boys: Changing the Classroom, Not the Child, and Get Over It! Relearning Guidance Practices

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