The Sinister Reality Behind Our Obsession with Viral Heartwarming Videos

On Wednesday, another story about a teacher receiving aid went viral. What if we just paid our teachers more?

On Wednesday morning, CBS News tweeted, “HEARTWARMING: A teacher breaks down in tears after the mother of a student buys her a car so she can get to work every day,” followed by a heart emoji and a square, grainy video. Even if you haven’t seen it yet, undoubtedly you have a fairly good idea of what happens because you’ve watched others like it about a million times before: a teacher learns a parent has bought her a car; you see the car with a bow on it; the teacher cries; they hug; now here we are, also crying and feeling good. It’s almost like we’re... the ones... who gave that poor teacher that car? I know we didn’t, but we feel like we did? Nice.

If you do watch the video, you’ll learn that this unnamed Alabama teacher was spending hours on the bus every day to get to work. When a concerned parent, Courtney Adeleye, found out, she gave her her own car. Adeleye posted the video on social media with the message, “Give to those without expectations.” It has since gone viral, with the CBS News clip racking up more than 750,000 views on Twitter alone.


It’s an uncontroversially wonderful act of kindness from Adeleye and her family, but just a notch below the surface, one that feels almost sinister. This teacher—again, unnamed in the video—rode a bus for hours every day to teach her kids. In exchange for her new car, she only had to become a Twitter moment.

Yesterday evening, Slate political correspondent Jamelle Bouie tweeted, “A heartwarming story of how dedicated public servants aren’t paid enough to afford a key necessity given the absence of reliable mass transit.”

Teachers are constantly the subject of heartwarming moments, and they’re great targets for it, since they work incredibly hard for obscenely little money. We’ve been asked to:

The trope is so common it got the Clickhole treatment.

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When you click through to the link in the CBS News tweet, you don’t even get an article about this heartwarming story. Instead, you’re directed to a slideshow titled, “Random acts of kindness from 2016 that will warm your heart,” that include slides like, “When this stranger paid for a teacher’s school supplies at Walmart,” “This bus driver who bought hats and gloves for kids in need on his route,” “The reason why this little boy asked his mom to pack 2 school lunches,” (spoiler: his classmate wasn’t being fed), and, bizarrely, “When Jon Voight bought 6 turkeys for this woman over Thanksgiving.”

As it is, in 2016-2017, K-12 teachers got paid a national average salary of $58,064, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. The Economist reports that’s less than 60 percent the salary of professions that require similar educations. In Alabama, where the teacher in the video above lives, the average is just under $49,000.


A survey released in May from the Department of Education found that 94 percent of public school teachers in the U.S. paid for their own school supplies in the 2014-2015 academic year, spending almost $500 on average. These numbers are both shocking and obviously unsustainable—this year, teachers have gone on strike in five states for better pay and school funding.

Teachers aren’t the only ones subject to the heartwarming story treatment. We’ve also seen this trend in healthcare—horrifically, it’s become almost expected that if you learn of someone’s illness or accident, a GoFundMe page will accompany the news. Or at work, where people donating unused sick time to pregnant colleagues is a "trendy co-worker baby shower gift." Or in legal services, like when Julie Schwietert Collazo launched her crowdfunding campaign to help migrants who had been separated from their children at the border.


These stories spread like the California wildfire that Trump fundamentally misunderstands how to put out, because they’re rare stories of compassion—because we see someone crying with joy, for once, and we cry, too. But they’re also inherently stories of a collective failure to make sure Americans have easy access to transportation and healthcare and maternity leave. They're stories of how we neglect, and then happily weep when that neglect is temporarily sated.

In America, if you’re lucky, you are caught by the viral heartwarming story safety net. If not, good luck getting someone to notice you.

This story originally appeared on

* Minor edits have been made by the editors.

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Joanna Rothkopf
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