Saturday, February 4, 2012

Life Isn't Fair

I learned that life wasn’t fair long ago.

Inequity. Injustice. Inconsistency. The motley brooding lot of them.

Beyond the typical childhood inequities of “she has more than me” or “the boys got to be first yesterday,” my first big enlightenment about injustice (aka, life is unfair) came in elementary – 5th grade to be exact – in a talent show. The judges, three teachers chosen for this Solomonic task, decided to flip a coin to determine first and second places. Evidently I lost the toss.

What possessed one of those teachers to then tell my parents about the coin flip, and what possessed my parents to then tell 11-year-old me of it, I can only believe were attempts to make something that felt wrong a bit more right. I guess I was to feel some measure of consolation that first place had been but a 180° rotation of pocket change away.

I only felt worse. This information only proved that adults who I had trusted as possessing sound judgment had avoided a decision.

I would not have minded earning second place as much as I minded losing first place in a coin toss.

That was when I learned it was possible for one choice to be more wrong than another even if the intent of that choice had been to do the right thing.

A person who agrees to be a judge needs to judge. Criteria and guidelines are established for making the decision. Judges who use coin flips are not fit to judge.

That’s what I learned in 5th grade.

As I matured, other lessons about fairness came through athletics – obvious ones about questionable calls and subjective coaching choices – and through extra-curricular activities. For instance, in junior high I went from being a drama student who was given a leading role in a play in 8th grade by Mrs. Rowland to a curtain puller the following year, courtesy of her fresh-from-college substitute teacher. The apology that Mrs. Rowland felt compelled to tell me in person still warms my heart.

While on her maternity leave, she tracked me down one day when she had stopped at the school to check her mailbox. “Joy, I want you to know I disagree with how she chose to cast the play. I had you in mind for one of the leads, but I gave her the privilege of assigning parts and don’t feel I can override her decision. I am shocked, and I want you to know I am very sorry.”

I didn’t understand the substitute teacher’s choice, but I understood Mrs. Rowland’s choice. Given the circumstances, Mrs. Rowland’s commitment to stand by the substitute teacher’s decision only seemed fair. All I could do was chose my reaction: I became the best damn curtain puller North Junior High had ever had.

My parents’ employment as public school teachers and my father’s role as a coach gave me an innate appreciation for the delicate dance of fairness that educators regularly perform both in a classroom and on a playing the field. I knew teachers weren’t superhuman. I knew they had biases and played favorites even when trying not too. I also understood that getting assignments in on time and not talking in class helped you jockey into an inside track position. Yet I also knew that being too good at being good could backfire.

You see, I was savvy to one of education’s dirty little secrets: Some teachers and school administrators were simply grown-up mean girls or bully boys. As such, their perception of fairness and their application of its principles tipped at whim. Even for those titled “principal.” My only official reprimand in all my years in school came from such a misjudgment of character, and not that of our principal, but that of our school librarian. In response to his request for me to talk more quietly, I ever-so-sweetly asked him if he was having a bad day. He answered me with detention time. And I could tell when he was signing my detention slip that his day had grown exponentially better.

Always an optimist, I think I held out hope that one day – perhaps by the time I was a grown up myself – I wouldn’t be bothered by injustices and inequities anymore. Well, perhaps I would still be bothered by gross injustices, the kind capable of spurring civil rights movements, certainly, but not by the much smaller kind of inequities, the ones that feed the gristmill of small-town living.

I must not be grown up yet.

Today, I will be fulfilling commitments that I made after our family decided to not attend a state contest held four hours away in support of our youngest son who earned the right to be there. We made the difficult family decision, believing it was in the best interest of our oldest son who has special needs. But yesterday I learned the criterion upon which we had based our decision had been faulty. We were adhering to a policy that had been inequitably and inconsistently administered. It turns out we could have attended in support of our youngest son in a manner that accommodated the needs of our oldest son if we had known it was possible to follow the rules the way some other families were.

We found out about the discrepancy too late, and after too much unnecessary conflict. So where does that leave us? Left behind. Literally.

But life isn’t fair, is it?

Our youngest will ride on the bus to the event and ride on the bus back home – just like the school policy says. He will perform like the champion he is with other people cheering him on in our place. He’ll be fine.

Like me, he has had his share of what-the-heck-happened-there? moments too. Little ones similar to my talent show and curtain pulling episodes, plus the extraordinarily bigger one that all members of our family share. Having a child - nay a brother - with life altering disabilities skews the playing field for all of us, not the least of whom, Stross himself.

Today’s debacle is just a new lesson or reminder for us all.

Life isn’t fair. It never has been. It never will be. But that doesn’t mean the ride won’t be worth the fare.


Misty Fielder said...

I can totally relate to it all!!!!

Mrs. Sopko said...

Well said, my dear friend. Well said. (not to mention innocuous...or would that be innocuously said?)

Joy said...

A deep thank you to you both for your kind comments. We've been in regular text context this morning. NERVES!

Joy said...

Ugh ... that would be text contact ... I AM nervous for him ...

Cynthia Michaelson said...

Joy, that was a great piece of writing borne of great wisdom. I love how passionate you are. I hope your return to teaching happens sooner rather than later.

By the way, I was a naive child and never suspected the "dirty little secret" of education. But oh how I see it as an adult in the system. This realization has made me more sympathetic and patient with students, especially when I find myself in a counseling role.

Thank you, Joy!

Joy said...

Thanks, Cindy, for your kind comments. I feel something akin to grief when I see students who don't seem to do well with the game of education. Their potential hinges on how well they read social cues and follow the rules, and that's not easy with so many personalities as variables. We write it off as preparation for life, but at what point are we liable for hampering someone's capacity to learn?

Not sure when I'll get back into the classroom proper. Perhaps it's time for me to find a new classroom - one without grades and grading! (Wouldn't that be wonderful?)

Cathy Olson said...

What you say here would be a bit funny if it weren't so dangerous. Bullies don't belong in education, but boy! They are everywhere! And unfortunately, I find these bullies gravitate to leadership roles where they can gather more power and guard it well. I feel blessed to not work with/for such people, I have learned that these personalities don't lead everywhere.

And we in education need to keep working to make the learning environment as fair as possible. We need to continue to make those invisible rules of the middle class visible, so those who don't know how to play the game can learn. We must empower those children who don't feel life is meant for them; how fun it is to watch ALL young people succeed.