In third grade, and then again in fifth, I had Mr. O’Brian for Language Arts. Mr. O’Brien was different from any teacher I had ever had before. For one, he was a man with a mustache (it was the 70’s). But the reason we all loved him is that he stoked the flames of our curiosity.
One day, he transformed the classroom into a courtroom. He told us about an incident in the news where some kids had vandalized an old women’s house and then killed her. We were appalled. We send the kids up the river. And after we did—he asked us if the story sounded familiar.
None of us had recognized it as Hansel and Gretel.
Whenever you asked Mr. O’Brien the spelling of a word, he always replied, “D-I-C-T-I-O-N-A-R-Y.”
And then there was the time Mr. O’Brien gave us a lesson in superlatives. He singled me out, asking, with a twinkle in his eye, “Melissa, who’s your best friend?”
He knew full well who my best friends were. We sat next to each other. We did our projects together. We got in trouble for talking together. The three of us were inseparable. “You know.” I told him, “I have two best friends: Emily and Christine.”
“No,” he corrected with a sadistic smile, “they might be two good friends, but you can only have one best friend.”
“They are both my best friends,” I insisted, refusing to choose, my eyes stinging with tears. It didn’t take much to get me going.
“Best is a superlative. It refers to the greatest degree of something. There can only be one best.”
“That’s not fair!” I complained. (To be more exact, Mr. O’Brien wasn’t being fair.)
Then he said what he always said. His greatest lesson of all: “Life is unfair.”
It was frustrating then, this essential, disappointing truth. And, now a grown-up myself, I carry the responsibility of passing along these painful words of wisdom.
After a strange warm spell, when the mercury climbed up to 60 in the middle of January, a meteorological gesture I can only take as a preview of the increasingly oppressive days to come, it settled back down into the below-freezing range. Sophia, was as fooled by this sudden warmth as the green shoots that dared peek out from the semi-thawed Earth. I slipped on my black, floor length coat and handed her a rainbow-colored ski jacket.
“No, mom. I want to wear my light, pink jacket.” It was what I had allowed her to wear a few days ago, when, in anything else she would have broken a sweat.
“Sorry, Soph, but it’s 28-degrees outside. You have to put on something warmer.” Temperature-appropriate is my only clothing requirement.
“But, mo-om! You’re wearing a light jacket.”
I begin to defend myself, “No, this is actually one of my winter coats—“
“No, it’s not!” I realize, once again, I have been tricked into arguing with a five-year-old. Drats!
“Put your coat on. It’s time to go.” I tell her, and I open the door for emphasis. A cold blast of air forces entry.
“My coat is stronger than your coat,” she sobs, shivering, “ITS NOT FAIR!”
It has arrived. The belief that all things must be equal. That life is predictable and makes sense. That good is rewarded with good, and bad is punished with bad. That she is entitled to fair.
I wonder where she has heard these three little words. Certainly not from me, who stopped long ago railing at the unfairness of life, nor from her father, who expects randomness. Who once told me he was struck with the sense of his aunt’s response when she contracted a deadly cancer, “Why not me?”
Is this, perhaps, a developmental stage, one we all pass through, where we come to believe that we should have exactly the same size cake—down to the crumb—as our siblings, have as many Beyblades as our best friends, stay up just as late as parents?
Or is it a folk belief, handed down from kid-to-kid, much in the way that playground games are mysteriously transmitted from generation to generation, without the intervention of adult stewards.
Here she is before me, saying what I have said so many times, with great indignance. I wonder if she will remember this moment, the way I remember mine with Mr. O’Brien, or if it will take many, many more disappointments before the truth of it sinks in.
“Sophia, life is unfair,” I tell her.