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An Unequal School
Hugh McInnish

Hugh This 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 blue light.

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.


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