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Equal at Birth, Not in Life

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When I was in sixth grade, Sister Mabel taught us how to multiply and divide fractions. Unlike my previous teachers, Sister Mabel taught us in a way I could understand. Up until then, I was a mathematical moron, so this was a huge deal to me. Finally, I had broken the code and could step through the club doors.

Sister Mabel divided the room into two lines by gender. It was a relay race of working fractions at the chalkboard. Nine girls were indifferent and eleven boys were loud. I couldn’t wait for my turn, as I was sure I could crush the trash-talking boys into oblivion.

Once it was my turn, I took the chalk from my defeated teammate and proceeded to whisk away the boys’ hope of triumph. I solved problem after problem with confidence and clarity. I overcame my mathematical incompetence and quieted the other line’s cockiness with each stroke of chalk. It was my proudest academic moment – until the girls became restless.

We girls had been taught fairness and sensitivity to a fault, to the point where teamwork and camaraderie were considered liabilities instead of assets. As the only granddaughter of more than 20 grandchildren, I was too familiar with losing to boys and was determined to take this win all the way home.

Instead of cheering me on, the girls demanded someone else get a turn at the board. The boys cheered and the girls didn’t seem to know why. I stood my ground. I was sure my teammates could be swayed by the knowledge that defeating the boys would give all of us girls something to hold over them through every game of kickball, dodgeball, and four-square. The boys would know our fury and eat it for lunch for the rest of their lives.

Sister Mabel tried to get the other girls behind me, but they would have none of it. She uttered some nonsense about democracy and I was cast aside. I conceded my chalk and unfairly became a part of a group that lost so badly, the points I’d scored didn’t even matter. The boys rightly sneered away my achievement. I was on the losing team and that’s all that mattered – to them and me. The girls wrongly touted the number of points I’d won, as if this were some kind of salve for the wound they’d inflicted.

Years later, my son and daughter were caught in a similar situation. Their teams were co-ed, and the demon of fairness would once again rear its ugly head. For them it was not the benched team members who would set the stage. It was the teacher himself who decided each player would be given but one word to spell.

Some did spell the words correctly because they had studied. Some didn’t because they hadn’t. In the end there was no final score even though a score had been kept. It was thrown out, much to the chagrin of those who had succeeded. The moral of the story was that everyone was a winner. This, even though not every child knew how to spell.

The education system attended by my children did also see fit to award every child for their efforts at the end of the school year. My ADHD daughter was given “Most Improved,” nine years in a row. At the beginning of every school year, she and her teacher would go ‘round and ‘round until about March. Only then would the teacher give up and follow the suggestions I’d set upon his/her desk on day one. Not miraculously, improvement followed.

My daughter had no use for awards (most ADHD children don’t) and she didn’t suffer when, in high school, they were no longer offered. My son, however, did not take it kindly when, year after elementary year, he was passed up for civic awards in favor of “best artist.” Yes, he could draw very well. He could also, because of his experiences living with his sister, diplomatically negotiate a way out of hell’s worst – for himself or on the behalf of others.

His compassion, his willingness to see the need where others couldn’t, and his ability to say just the right thing at just the right time was unequalled by his peers and lauded by his teachers.

Nonetheless, the rule of fairness thumbed its nose at him. The child who bullied others during school hours, but who sacrificed watching cartoons to pick up trash on the side of the road every Saturday morning, was deemed the more civic-minded and thusly rewarded – not the child who might one day bring about peace in the Middle East.

This skewed application of fairness is now being felt by more than just myself and my Marine husband because the test to license U.S. military and dependent drivers stationed in Germany has undergone revision to make the test easier. This was done in response to complaints from those who had failed the test. They asserted the test was too hard.

Too, those in positions of authority didn’t like that that as much as 45 percent of incoming personnel couldn’t get their vehicles out of the holding lot (or, the “loser’s lot” to those who see the same vehicles sitting for months on end as they drive by on the other side of the fence).

The drivers who did pass the more difficult test are now subject to the substandard driving skills of those who were unable to meet the higher standards. German drivers, whose training and licensing is considerably more expensive, thorough, and time consuming than American training and licensing, are also subject to this set of “winners.” The safety of those who can has been compromised to accommodate those who can’t.

In no effort to combine the real meaning of fairness, teamwork, and camaraderie, the powers-that-be have forsaken the life lesson and reward of that combination. As has oft been said, fair is not everyone getting the same thing; fair is everyone getting what they need. Some people need to be better educated and trained before they are allowed to be part of a team (group, population).

Bad people who perform a good deed need all their deeds put into proper perspective. Those who don’t meet the standard need to be worked with until they do, not artificially propped up as equals to those who already do. The efforts of those who accomplish should not be minimized to make the minimal feel better.

We, as a society, are the sum of all our parts. Everyone pays when we deliberately impose subtractions instead of making the necessary, and fairer, additions.

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About Diana Hartman

Diana is a USMC (ret.) spouse, mother of three and a Wichita, Kansas native. She is back in the United States after 10 years in Germany. She is a contributing author to Holiday Writes. She hates liver & motivational speakers. She loves science & naps.
  • dad

    Just another example of how to “dumb down” requirements so that everyone is able to be “equal” to everyone else. It’s just another resurgance of the “Great Society” that spawned all the the “Entitlements” of the 60’s and 70’s. If you have something you “owe” it to the people that don’t have that. And don’t ask if it is wanted. Someone else will decide for both of you. They probably have something also, but they will keep theirs and share yours.

  • While I see your point about the foolishness of making the driving test easier, I don’t understand your comparison to your math relay race.

    From the way you described the story, you displayed less teamwork and camaraderie than the other girls, not the other way around. They wanted a chance to play for their team, and you wanted to be the only one to play just so that you personally could beat the boys. You call that teamwork? I call it ball hogging. What exactly would the other girls have gained if the girls’ team won but only one girl actually played? A victory in name only.

    When it comes to school and learning, fairness — everyone gets a turn even if they’re not as skilled or smart — is a much better value to teach children than winning at all costs.

    Sister Mabel should have spent more time helping the other girls understand and like math than pitting the boys and girls against each other. Learning isn’t something to hoard or wield over others to make them feel inferior. What an unhealthy educational environment!

  • Ruvy in Jerusalem


    This was an excellent piece that rightly belonged in the politics section of the magazine. While you are the culture editor, this is a very political piece. Pieces similar to it at Desicritics.org are rightly called political, as the entitlements you talk about in passing that have been turned into legislation in your homeland are called “reservations” there and are the subject of bitter debate.

    Needless to say, I agree with you 100% on all the points you make here, even though I suffered from the exact opposite problem. Once upon a time, the folks at the City University had the guts to upgrade their standards, instead of dumbing them down, and I was forced to attend a college in the Bronx, instead of Brooklyn College, as I was originally supposed to. This was done after I had taken the senior tests for matriculation, and after the grades were in, and there was nothing I could do about it. It was unfair, but life is unfair.

  • Jason

    lori, I think that the problem is, academics, like driving is NOT a team sport.

    How would you feel if you were graded an ‘A’ on your paper but received a ‘C’ because the other person on your team got an ‘F’, so the teacher took some of your grade and added it to theirs to make things more ‘fair’?

    I have a serious problem with dumbing things down for equality.

    I have a serious problem with lowering standards for equality.