I believe that life should be fair. I was one of those kids who proclaimed this belief loudly and often. When I was ten there was an incident at my school that taught me some important lessons about fairness, or the lack thereof.
Some students in my fifth grade class learned how to insert a small piece of paper in the water fountain in a way that would cause the water to shoot up into the faces of unsuspecting patrons. We were all wildly amused by the results.
There were numerous incidents of water-fountain-tampering in our school over the course of several weeks. One day our mischief came to an abrupt halt. I was summoned to the principal’s office.
I peered at Mr. Walters as he sat behind a huge oak desk. He said, “Debbie, did you tamper with the water fountain?” My voice was shaky but certain when I said, “No.”
Mr. Walters said, “Well someone did and I intend to find out who it was.” He paused before going on. “Debbie, I think you know who put the paper in the water fountain and I expect you to tell me who it was.”
I was terrified. Mixed with my fear however, was an anger that started to rise up inside me. Why had they singled me out? What right did they have to accuse me? Did Mr. Walters think that he could bully me into telling? I stood firm in my conviction. I was going to plead the fifth. I said to Mr. Walters, “I don’t know. I don’t know who did it.”
Mr. Walters looked frustrated and angry and uncertain of how to respond. Finally he said, “Debbie if you don’t tell me who tampered with the water fountain you will be punished.” I was sure that he was bluffing. He couldn’t make me tell. He couldn’t even prove that I had any knowledge of the crime. My resolve stiffened and I refused to talk.
I was sentenced to one week of lunchroom duty. As I wiped tables and took out garbage and carried trays to the kitchen that week, I went over the events that had transpired. I was convicted with little or no evidence connecting me to the crime. What about my right to remain silent? My thoughts always brought me to the same conclusion, “It just wasn’t fair!”
This seemingly insignificant series of events taught me something about power, truth and justice. It taught me that power is often abused at the expense of the powerless and that justice does not always prevail. It made me aware of my own power and how I should try not to abuse it. It taught me that I should speak the truth and that sometimes I will pay a price for doing so. I still believe that life should be fair. Today while I understand that life does not guarantee justice for all, my commitment to fairness has not waned.
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