An Unequal School
warm, bright, and pollen-scented morning I got into my car and headed
for the cross-town interstate. I was happy that I did not have to spoil
the goodness of the day by traveling far on that whizzing artery. I turned
off, motored for a few miles through less threatening streets, and finally
reached the calm of a quiet valley now turning green. I had arrived at
my destination: a small, or at least not-so-large, elementary school.
I was there by special invitation. I had come to see a dramatic production
to be staged by the second grade!
In this nervous era checking in was impressively simple. No fence surrounded
the school. In the office I was handed a sheet of decals, on each of which
was hand-written the word "Visitor." I peeled one off, stuck
it to my shirt, and walked to the cafeteria-- no guards, no magnetometers,
practically no questions.
The cafeteria was bare, having been cleared to make room for the students
not in the second grade to sit on the floor. They filed in, miraculously
with hardly any sound, and sat as their teachers instructed. I chatted
briefly with the parents who, like me, were lined along the back wall.
Then the performers came, the full complement of the second grade trooping
in in single file, all arrayed in full costume. I didn't count them but
they were numerous. (Although I will admit that a gang of second-graders
tend to seem more numerous than they actually are.)
The theme of the program was the solar system. Wearing three-foot facsimiles
of their assigned planets as vests, students stepped to the microphone
and recited their lines. "I am Mercury. I am the planet closest to
the sun. I have many craters on my surface and it is very hot." So
far as I noticed, from Mercury on out to Pluto not a single child forgot
his lines. Not all lines were simply spoken. Some were sung, and some
were accompanied by dance steps.
Spacemen and non-earthlings entered the scene, and their costumes were
especially noteworthy because they seemed to bear the particular marks
of parental creativity. The life support packages were worn on the back
and included two oxygen tanks made from empty one-liter plastic Coke bottles.
Around the neck some wore necklaces emitting iridescent red, green, and
A genuinely deserved applause came at the end of the performance, and
several times before. But this was just the dress rehearsal. The real
thing will come tonight before a full-blown PTA audience. Chairs will
have been put up but they will not be enough. The cafeteria will be packed
from wall to wall with beaming parents and grandparents, aunts and uncles.
Evidently the second-grade production was part of a larger program concentrating
on our space program, because in the hall just outside the cafeteria I
saw a bulletin board that displayed pictures and students' accompanying
hand-written texts presenting the achievements of their grandfathers in
our moon-landing project. Several grandpops were shown with famous astronauts
and with Wernher von Braun himself.
The day was still fair, the traffic lighter, and I drove home without
stress, freeing a little cerebral capacity for leisurely cogitation upon
what I had just seen. It was better than opera, better than the symphony.
In these you see adult professionals, people with uncommon talent and
years of intense training, those whose ability you take for granted. Here,
though, was the vanguard of the rising generation, and seeing them you
cannot but find some relief from the anxiety arising from all the dire
predictions we hear for the future. There are indeed some good schools
left in this country. And all we need to do is make them all like the
one I visited today. Then all will be well. Alas! It is not to be.
If all men were created equal, and I mean equal in all respects, not just
equal in the eyes of the Creator, it might be possible. But equality is
an egalitarian myth. Intelligence, energy, attitude, cultural history,
and who knows how many other factors, spread us humans across a very wide
spectrum, and nothing short of coercive government can give us equal outcomes--
and then only by reducing the more capable to the level of the less. The
students I watched today have won mightily in life's lottery. They have
been disproportionately favored by both Nature and Nurture. Through no
merit of theirs they were born into families with grandfathers who were
the smart people, those at the top of the spectrum, literally the proverbial
rocket scientists. These are unequal people, and clustered in their nice
homes in their quiet valley they have created an unequal school, one which
undoubtedly will produce students who, as grandparents, will one day have
their pictures on the bulletin boards of their grandchildren's school.
Is this fair? I would say no, it is not fair. I mean it is not fair in
the sense that life is not fair. Can we, then, make up for life's unfairness?
I think not. Much mischief has been created in the attempt, but always
without success. Unfairness, so far as I can see, is a fixed element in
the human condition.