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Fair, Just, or Equal?

How a Bad Teacher Taught Me a Great Lesson

Seven Thursdays ago, I finished up my last class in Spain for this year. I'd been working as a classroom assistant/language assistant for the past 9 months. It was a wonderful ride, but that isn't what this post is about.

I had woken up the Wednesday before in a weird mood. Like a good millennial, I picked up my phone and opened up Google. But then I did something--odd. Instead of looking up cat videos, I typed in the name of my 6th grade English teacher. I remember her as being this impossibly thin white woman with very small breasts. She often hunched over when she sat, so her chest always seemed concave.

Rumor had it that her father was a very famous and respected journalist. This worked to my advantage because initially, my Google search yielded no results. So I went to her father's Wikipedia page and looked for her. Sure enough, he had one daughter. Only her first name wasn't as I remembered. It was, however, equally as WASPy and it almost rhymed with the one I misremembered.

I entered this new name into Google and two small pictures popped up. There she was: still slim with the same strong jaw. She also wasn't wearing a bra. Bingo! If I had any doubts, they were erased at that moment.

The Ice Skater

But let's back up and give some context. At the age of five, I decided that I wanted to become an ice skater. Luckily for me, I had some role models. Debbie Thomas epitomized both my goals of being an ice skater and a doctor. And I held a bit of brown girl pride for Sonya Bonaly and her illegal backflip. I maintained my obsession with the sport until the 1998 Winter Olympics. To this day, I still carry a bit of resentment that Tara Lipinski beat Michelle Kwan. But I digress.

I voiced this desire to skate to my parents, but they ignored me. A year later as consolation, I started dance lessons. And this soon became the center of my world.

Five years into dance lessons and a few trips to the skating rink later, I found myself in this woman's class. She had assigned our class a writing project to write about either a great skill we had or a hobby we enjoyed. I could have easily written about ballet, but I chose to write about ice skating instead.

As an imaginative young writer, I exaggerated a few of my skills, but I was still happy with the finished product. My satisfaction lasted until I got the paperback and read the comments. If memory served me correctly, there wasn't really an issue with the form. We hadn't really learned much about grammar so she couldn't critique it. What she gave instead was a critique of me.

You?

She wanted to let me know that she was well aware that I was not an ice-skater. To this day, I can still see her writing in the margins. "Do you really think that you should be the one telling this story?" I was, as I had learned in Judy Blume books, indignant. I was also confused. Try as I might with my child's mind, I could not understand why she would say something like this to me. Furthermore, I was angry at the idea that this virtual stranger was making this kind of judgment of my life.

Yet, this woman felt comfortable expressing the fact that she had "found me out" and knew that the truth about me. Because, to be honest, she wasn't just talking about ice skating. She did not write to me "I didn't know you took ice skating lessons." Or "how long have you been taking lessons?" She questioned whether or not I was the type of person capable of being an ice-skater.

That comment has stuck with me for twenty years now--including last Thursday morning. Though it was the first time I had heard this type of sentiment, it was hardly the last time. In the interim, I've been told that I could not be a dermatologist, an anthropologist, a psychiatrist, and a writer. I was also told that I would never live in Europe. My entire life people have been giving me unsolicited opinions about what they perceived to be my capabilities and limitations.

And it was with that low-lying resentment still burning in my heart that I scanned through her Google search results. And then I found it. A blog that she had started, a few years ago but never really kept up.


What is Fair?

In one of the posts, she wrote about the concept of "fairness." She retold how she had taken sides during a disagreement between her two young children. And in so doing, she had favored her daughter in a way that was biased and unfair.

Funnily enough, after initially reading what she wrote, I didn't feel as though she had done anything wrong, per se. I think that her wording towards her son could have been revised in order to create a teachable moment. But as a truly objective observer, I came away feeling as though her overriding guilt and resentment was unwarranted.

It was a strange moment to be in. In my own mind, I felt as though I was defending someone who had treated me in a way that was indefensible. But there it was--a lesson in perspective. What is fair? What is equal? What is just?

The Lesson

In order for a circumstance to be considered "right," do they all have to align? Or can something be equal, but unfair? Unfair, but just. Unequal, but right? I decided to pose these questions to my classes as my final lesson.

It was a hit. Perhaps even, my most successful lesson to date. Everyone had an opinion because there are no easy answers to these questions. And after my final class, I felt strangely vindicated. I had disliked this woman for at least twenty years. But for at least ten, I had actively been telling myself to get over it. But I hadn't. I couldn't. What I finally did instead was to confront my feelings. And in the end, I came away with a lesson, both real and metaphorical.

I also got a blog post out of it and some other writings as well. And writing taught me another lesson. Instead of dismissing my pain or telling myself that I should just "get over" something that bothers me, I should find a way to make use of it. I am far from the only person who has had that type of experience, so hopefully, by writing about it, I will be able to offer them some food for thought. Or provide a perspective to offer some sort of closure.

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