A Lesson in Fairness

Fairness is a subject of endless rants and raves these days. Everyone wants to receive absolute fairness, while diminishing the slights and oversights we perpetrate every day. A recent such rant from a friend about a work situation reminded me of the best lesson I ever got about fairness. It was from an English class project back in good ‘ole Blacksburg days.

Our teacher, Mrs. Smith (not a real name), was fairly warm to me and I must confess she seemed to be fair in her grading (fair being A’s for my work). Her approach in teaching English Lit was very participatory–we would study a well-known work then write our own piece that was in the same vein–short story for short story, poem for poem, etc. During one section we were studying folk music, specifically Celtic as the origin of then modern Country Music. As an exercise we were to write and sing our own country song.

We were paired in two’s or three’s–I was assigned to be the partner of “Marleen,” (again, not the real name). Marleen was the quiet girl in the class–a small, trim, honey-blonde “hick,” (the uncomplimentary term we used for someone less than upscale). She was actually rather pretty, but not of the right sort to be noticed. Truth be told, I was not very pleased: I assumed she wasn’t all that bright and expected she couldn’t sing a note.

I was wrong on both accounts. When she and I got together in the library, it became obvious that Marleen was far sharper than I would guess and was more knowledgeable on the subject than I. Putting our heads together we came up with a somewhat modernized version of “Barbara Allen” with some appropriately silly country references (dogs, pickups, police issues).

The story was the same as “Barbara Allen:” boy loves girl who doesn’t give him the time of day, boy dies (eventually) from a broken heart after drinking, losing his dog, wrecking his truck. Girl dies from the overwhelming guilt.

The music was not bad; Mrs. Smith allowed us free reign to steal the music since it was just for the classroom, and we took the “Barbara Allen” and “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry” music, mixed them and came up with a nice sound. The music flowed pretty well (I could play a guitar with some skill) and big surprise–Marleen had the voice of an angel: a high soprano as clear as a bell.

For the cheap heart-break we had the chorus be the burial part, followed by the simple refrain:

“And they laid him down to rest
Deep in the meadow
While a whippoorwill sang
His soul’s last song”

Second part was her struggling with the guilt,. She told her mother of her impending death, much like the original. Then we used the (yes, cheap emotional trick) device:

“And they laid her next to him
Deep in the meadow
While a whippoorwill sang
Her soul’s last song”

We decided that I would sing the first part through the chorus, then she would do the second, but I would join in for the chorus as a finish.

The day of the presentation had us both nervous as mice at a cat convention. Thankfully we were called early; I don’t think Marleen would have handled the wait all the way through. On the way to the front of the class, a sneering jerk said, “Look, it’s Hick and Dick.” The insult elicited a good laugh from the class and I could tell that Marleen was made even more nervous.

Hoping to keep things going I whispered, “We’ll just look at each other while we sing–ignore the class.” That seemed to help, as she at least gave a little smile.

The opening lines went well enough–I had a rich baritone and sang the first part with only a couple of bobbles. But when we came into the second…what a hit. Marleen’s beautiful, clear voice filled that room and silenced even sneer-boy. When we finished the final chorus, a couple of the girls were weeping. As we walked back to our desks we could hear whispered compliments.

Mrs. Smith’s only response was, “Interesting composition.”

I was certain we had an “A:” how could we not? So imagine my surprise when we received a “C.” I was ranting to Marleen outside the class with every intention of accosting the teacher when Marleen just smiled. She looked at me with those clear blue, wise eyes and said, “It won’t matter.”

“When Mrs. Smith looks at me she sees trash. I may get A’s and B’s in my other classes, but trash never gets better than a C with Mrs. Smith. It’s simply the way she is.”

“But Marleen, that’s grossly unfair,” I blurted.

That sad little smile came again and she said, “My momma tells me never to expect fairness in this life–we’ll find it in the next.”

We never sang our song again.

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