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.