In Search of Fairness

When the World Doesn’t Add Up

Educators and activists love to say, “Fair is not equal.” Susie gets extra time on her test but Johnny doesn’t. Sorry, Johnny, but Susie has a documented learning disability and needs this accommodation to level the playing field. So, it makes sense that “fair is not equal.” A quick Google search of the phrase results in a plethora of teacher blogs, advocacy pages, editorials, political fact-checks, and delightful cartoons showing short people finding ways to grow taller.

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This is why we have those extendable-pole fruit pickers, right? Or maybe the guy on the left could have just grabbed enough apples for everyone and avoided the whole issue, but, hey, this way each person gets to pick his own. Problem solved.

The danger, however, comes in oversimplifying the harsh realities of inequality. A trite suggestion that we all just stand on boxes until everyone sees eye to eye doesn’t exactly satisfy most economic and social disparities. The top 1% of the world owns half its wealth. People of color are overrepresented in prisons and underrepresented at top universities. Something tells me the stack of boxes to fix that one will be higher than three.

Interestingly, as a kid, my household exalted fairness. Video games had to involve taking turns. Every new toy had to be shared. If our family of four had a dozen cookies, our sacred covenant assigned three apiece. There was no first-come-first-served; if I wanted a fourth cookie, I had to obtain the rights to it through a complicated ritual of dinner-table bartering. In my rural, middle-class hometown, I’d never heard the term white privilege, but perhaps here was the finest instance of it. I grew up believing the world can and should be fair. Elsewhere in America, millions of people already knew the reality. I could list hundreds of examples to prove it, but I suppose this is one of those universal truths we don’t need to demonstrate. Anyone with half a brain and an ounce of honesty knows the world is not fair.

Really, though, this is where I get stuck. Privilege and opportunity are gifts that I have in some areas and advantages that I lack in others. Some of these gaps can close with hard work or change of circumstance while many cannot. There’s this version of me who wants to fix the system, to shatter ceilings and tear down walls, to find the exact right amount of boxes for us all to pick apples. At the same time, there’s this other version of me who calls himself the realist and thinks I should just be thankful for the apples I already have. Let others mind their own harvests. Then the blame-shifter: Not my orchard—I didn’t plant the tree. Then the deep thinker: What if not everybody wants apples?

Before I go too far with the metaphor, I need to stop and think about the goal. Are privileged people just trying to make others more like them? The implication of saying “fair is not equal” is that some other strategy would be “equal.” Yet maybe it also means that the goal of fairness is not equality, at least, not in the sense of uniformity or fitting a mold. Fair is seeing diversity, valuing difference, making college accessible but appreciating that there’s more than one road to reach a destination and more than one reason to go there in the first place. Fair is encouragement, means, possibilities. We don’t all have to grow the exact same tree, but we should all be able to garden.

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Image credit: Botelho, Rick. Equality doesn’t mean equity. Digital image. What’s Most Unfair about US Healthcare? LinkedIn.com, 02 June 2016. Web. 31 May 2017.

Stereotype vs. Archetype

And Why They Both Matter

Today’s topic for writers and students of writing: proper use of the archetype. The reluctant hero. The wise magician. The power-hungry villain. Yes, we know them.

Archetype: A typical and recurring example used as a model from which to build a character. Readers quickly recognize archetypes, allowing authors to provide context and backstory for their characters in only a few words. I say power-hungry villain, and readers think, “Oh yes, I know him!”

Not to be confused are stereotypes, or the widely held and oversimplified ideas of certain people. The power-hungry villain, yes, but not all villains want to take over the world. (Cue The Dark Knight: “Some men just want to watch the world burn.”)

Whenever I’m in an airport, I people-watch. Duty-free shoppers, low-battery outlet hunters, those efficient types who power walk on the moving sidewalk. Sleepless individuals zombified at the terminal, trapped in layover purgatory. Their clothing, facial expressions, juicy snippets of conversation. Hemingway said, “If a writer stops observing he is finished.” Everyone there has a story, and I try to figure it out.

For example, the woman by herself toting a purse the size of her carry-on, Kindle and neck pillow already out, is on her way to visit her parents. She bought the chips and bottled water at the snack stand; she’s comfortable, bored, and makes the trip a few times each year. Suit jacket guy is some kind of consultant making twice as much as me. It’s the end of the week, so I’m guessing he’s on his way back instead of on his way out. That family of four with kids glued to iPads, Frozen backpacks, and ziplock bags of Goldfish is going to Disney World—too easy, that one.

Anyway, to my point: Writers are detectives, deducing the logical, likely, and mundane aspects of a situation. After all, good characters are grounded in reality so that the inevitable twist in the plot comes with a willing suspension of disbelief. Certain universalities of the human experience tie readers to a story and allow literature to speak its transcendent truths. Readers understand the rebellious teen, the loathsome stepmother, the insightful mentor. Archetypes provide a framework, a proper syntax for the writer and reader to communicate. Conflict needs archetypes—the average office employee has no appeal until he becomes the workaholic father or the guy with a dead-end job lacking love or adventure. Readers know these starting points; they understand and relate to these problems.

Stereotypes, on the other hand, shut down a story instead of open it up. While archetypes provide background information to enrich a character, stereotypes limit and flatten them. The rebellious teen starts out okay until readers realize that their spike-wearing, punk-rock-loving, high-school-failing, parent-disobeying heroine is, well, just a stereotypical rebellious teen. Without anything fresh or unexpected, the story implodes. The characters are two-dimensional; the plot is no longer one to care about. Clever use of archetypes says, “Look, readers, you already know the beginning. Now keep going and find out where this adventure will take you.” Careless use of stereotypes says, “Look, readers, you already know the ending. So why bother?”

Back at the airport, my archetypes help me make sense of what I’m seeing. If I needed to know which gate is boarding a flight to Orlando, I’d do well to ask the Disney World family. Stereotypes, however, end the story prematurely. Assuming that the traveling consultant is an arrogant know-it-all? Well, I might miss out on a stimulating conversation aboard the plane. Real people are three-dimensional with story and complexity, and real characters ought to follow.

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Finding My Limit

Or, Why I Like Calculus

The speed of light in a vacuum is approximately 300,000,000 meters per second, meaning that photons from the surface of the Sun take roughly eight minutes to reach planet Earth. That’s a long time or a short time depending on one’s understanding of distances between celestial bodies, but it matters that it’s eight minutes and not seven. Nothing can hurry the sunlight; it’s going as fast as it can, and, still, it takes eight minutes.

There’s an epic moment in the movie Without Limits, the 1998 biopic of great American runner Steve Prefontaine. Bill Bowerman, Pre’s coach, shouts at him, “Be thankful for your limits, Pre. They’re about as limitless as they get in this life.” Pursuit of greatness can quickly turn into obsession: Pre once held the American record at every distance from 2,000 to 10,000m on the outdoor track, and still he wanted more. There’s something so tantalizing about a record. It taunts a man to go just a little bit faster, to push just a little bit harder.

In 1954, Roger Bannister recorded the first sub-four-minute mile. As of this writing, the current men’s record is 3:43.13 by retired Moroccan runner Hicham El Guerrouj. Most experts would agree that a sub-three-minute mile is beyond human capability, but what about 3:42? Or 3:41? Following Bannister’s achievement, the world record dropped every few years, but El Guerrouj’s mark has stood since 1999. Perhaps sociocultural factors have lessened the global interest in distance running, perhaps elite athletes no longer carry that singular focus, or perhaps the world has already seen the fastest a human being will ever run 5,280 feet. Another decade will provide a hint; another century may tell for sure. It makes for an exhilarating thought experiment: Is mankind still reaching its greatest potential, or has the moment already passed?

Considering this question, it makes sense why I liked calculus in school. The mathematical study of limits, the convergence of graphs and patterns toward a single asymptote they will never cross—I saw my life in numbers. One of my middle school teachers told the class, “Boys, when your wife asks what’s the happiest day of your life, the correct answer is the day of your wedding. Maybe until your first child is born, then you can say that.” Not a lot to hope for once the kids are out of the house, is there? Maybe joy approaches a limit until a man’s wedding day but has a line it never crosses. Maybe my athletic prowess peaked in college, or maybe I’ll work out more in my fifties. Maybe my health has already reached its upper limit; hopefully my finances are a long way off.

This kind of talk depresses most readers, and it probably should. There’s a natural limitation to human effort: We are born invincible and gradually learn the truth. The child’s hand on the stove, the teen’s first broken heart, bad news at the doctor’s, a pink slip at the job. Paul writes of the thorn in his flesh, the one to which the Lord said, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness” (2 Cor 12:9). So there is grace in limitation; God’s power goes beyond the asymptote.

I try to imagine a shape with no boundaries, and suddenly I’m thankful for my limits. I, too, have definition; I too am named. Light takes eight minutes to arrive here from the sun, and it’s well worth the journey. True power comes when I approach my limits.

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An Open Letter to My Students

From Your English Teacher

Dear students,

Some distressing news has come to my attention, and I must address it immediately. Apparently a rumor is now circulating our school community that I am, in fact, a “cool” teacher. I assure you—and those of you who’ve known my bad jokes and insistence that we always finish the lesson will heartily agree—that nothing could be further from the truth. Allow me to set the record straight: I may be friendly, but I am not your friend.

You see, friends will invite you to parties, show sympathy when you’re sick, and accept your shy moments when you don’t want to share. They will forgive your dumb decisions and random class outbursts; they will supply you with answers on the homework you forgot about and shrug it off when you turn it in late. A good friend will help you, rescue you, or perhaps even lie for you to get you out of trouble.

I will not.

No, I will ignore your headaches and stomachaches and call on you anyway. Keep your hands down and your heads on your desks—I will call on you anyway. Save your “I don’t know” unless you want to add yet. I will demand your respect for me and for others; I will require your effort on every assignment. Oh, and when you misbehave and I speak to your parents, I will throw you under the bus every time. Count on it.

Such harshness, however, is not without reason. I’m a little ahead of you in life, and that gives me some perspective. I need more from you than you currently give, and, trust me, you need it too. You might think you’ll be okay as long as you do your best—maybe someone has even told you that—but you won’t be. The problem with do your best, dear students, is that you have no idea what it means.

Right now, you think your best is just showing up on time and following directions. As long as you’re ahead of some peers, there’s nothing to worry about. You think your best is a five-paragraph essay, double spaced with a flashy title and word choices like mirthful and astute. You say your best is a 5/5 on participation, and you’re pleased with an A on your vocab quiz. Your best is meeting the standards; your best is fitting the mold.

It’s not.

Your best, my students, means taking a risk; your best goes beyond the horizon. My job is to push you when you’d rather be pulled. My job is to stoke the fire of your ideas that don’t quite fit on the page, to give you voice beyond the expected response, to help you read with questions and speak with answers, to develop in you a hunger for knowledge that a lifetime of learning could never satisfy. When someday you graduate from one challenge and move on to the next, when you create with your gifts and serve with your talents, when you make your marks on the world and see what still can be and not just what is, that is your best. Then I will have done my job.

I set the bar higher than you’d set if for yourselves because I know one day you’ll jump without it, and I want you to soar. So yes, you must use complete sentences, and no, we are not watching a movie today. I am the uncool teacher because you are more valuable than you know and more capable than you believe.

So ignore the rumors because yes, you do have homework.

Sincerely,

-Mr. Leonard

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