June 6, 2014
"Life isn’t fair." A lot of us have heard that and probably even said it. Most of us have heard it at some point from our parents, who use it as a quick and convenient way to shut down an argument when what they really mean is "It’s complicated, and I don’t have the time and/or energy and need you to drop it" Or they mean "I screwed up, but it’s complicated and I don’t have the time and/or energy and really need you to drop this shit right now before I do something worse."
Sometimes, though, people will use "Life isn’t fair" as an excuse. Some people will use it as an excuse to be mean spirited. They might see someone in a difficult situation they’ve been through, and they could help, but why should they? No one helped them, as if that’s an excuse. More often, though, "Life isn’t fair" is something people will say because they’re lazy, because it’s an easy way to get out of helping another person doing something difficult. Or sometimes it’s just a default position. Let me tell you about my algebra teacher my junior year in high school, Mr. Buldey. Mr. Buldey’s class was supposed to be paced for students like me who were a step above remedial math-I know that two plus two equals 4.1415926 – but weren’t great at it either. Mr. Buldey wanted to teach the advanced math class, but the school administrators had decided that job should go to another teacher who, unlike Mr. Buldey, was actually qualified. Mr. Buldey didn’t care, and decided to teach the class I was in as though it was the advanced class, assigning a chapter a day. He didn’t spend much time even teaching. He just told us to open our books and get to it. If we couldn’t keep up it was our fault.
In contrast to the speed at which he covered the material Mr. Buldey himself was a human narcotic. He would sit on the edge of his desk and talk in a low, deep voice, slurring his S’s and Z’s. "Studentssss," he would say, "today we will take a quizzzz on chaptersss sssixteen and ssseventeen." Algebra was first period, and it was hard enough to stay awake at ssseven in the morning, but Mr. Buldey could cure insomnia. The evening the school had an open house so parents could meet the teachers. Mr. Buldey put half the adults to sleep.
He also never wrote anything on the blackboard. In fact I never saw him write anything, except the big red "F" he put on most of my papers. He even signed our report cards with a rubber stamp. I suspect he was illiterate.
In the final six weeks of the semester I along with half the class was moved out of Mr. Buldey’s class. We were put in Mr. Charles’s class. Mr. Charles wasn’t much better as a teacher, but I think that was because this was his first teaching job. At least that was part of it. He was also an excellent singer and did a couple of very stirring songs at the school talent show. When I asked him why he went into teaching instead of trying to make it as a singer he said, "Because I like a steady paycheck."
It wasn’t exactly an inspiring message.
"Hey, doc, before you perform the delicate operation to remove this malignant tumor next to my spine, I was wondering why you chose a career in medicine."
"Gotta pay the bills somehow."
At the end of the semester when we had to take the final exams I worked very hard at the one in Mr. Charles’s class, but somehow didn’t have time to finish. I asked if I could come back during lunch and hopefully finish the remaining questions. He said, "Sure," but when I came back at lunch he said, "You know, it just wouldn’t be fair to the other students to let you have more time to take the test."
Since there were five other refugees from Mr. Buldey’s class standing with me who’d made the same request there were "other students". And we weren’t asking to be allowed to bring Albert Einstein in to answer the questions for us. We just wanted an extra half hour, something any student in the class could have asked for. What would have been unfair about that? And if we were talking about what was fair versus what wasn’t, how fair was it that we’d been stuck in Mr. Buldey’s classs for three monthsss? How fair was it that, even though Mr. Charles was about four chapters behind where we’d been in the other class, we were still trying to make up for what we’d missed? How fair was it that we’d been told we could use our lunch break to finish a few extra questions and then told we couldn’t?
I have to admit that Mr. Buldey and Mr. Charles did teach me an important lesson: that "fair" is like the value of x or y on a Cartesian plane. It varies. Sometimes life isn’t fair, and there’s nothing we can do about it. Some people will eat quinoa and kale three times a day and still get cancer. And sometimes life could be fair, but the people who have the power choose to let unfairness stand. They abide by arbitrary rules, either out of apathy, as was the case with Mr. Charles, and sometimes out of pure pettiness, as was the case with Mr. Buldey, who felt it wasn’t fair that he couldn’t teach advanced calculus. I did, by the way, pass with a low C average the period I was in Mr. Charles’s class, although I’d failed so badly under Mr. Buldey’s tutelage that I had to re-take the first semester of junior algebra my senior year. My second time around wasn’t so bad. I had a completely different teacher, Mrs. Havely. Her classroom was on the opposite side of the hall from Mr. Buldey’s, which was fitting, because she was the exact opposite of Mr. Buldey. She went over advanced concepts carefully, drilled us on the quadratic formula, and stood alongside us at the blackboard as we worked through problems. The only time I aced math in high school was when I was in her class. And she took a personal interest in her students too. There was a guy in the class who always wore black jeans with a chain, and Metallica, Megadeath, and Nana Mouskouri t-shirts. One day she asked him, "Trevor, are you a devil worshipper?"
It sounds like a dumb question, but consider the context. This was the late eighties, not long before the "Satanic panic" in which some psychologists led clients to believe they’d been victims of horrific abuse by their parents – sometimes resulting in accusations and even false imprisonment. It was a time when I loved going to bookstores and picking up The Satanic Bible by Anton Levay, not because I had any interest in it, but because I found it funny. There was a picture of him on the cover – a bald, scowling man who looked like Ming The Merciless, complete with the long moustache. And then on the first page was the dedication: "For Diane." Isn’t that sweet? It was a time when some heavy metal artists cultivated the idea that they were Satanists, not necessarily because they really were, but because it helped them create that aura of rebelliousness that, following the Sex Pistols, was getting harder and harder to maintain. It was a time when Ozzy Osborne was someone your parents wanted you to stay away from rather than someone your parents wanted to be. There was no judgment in the way Mrs. Havely asked the question, though. She just sounded curious. I think, like many of us, she’d heard of Satanists but never actually met one, and didn’t want to judge them unfairly.