Lessons in Equality

Many years ago, the local school board established a system whereby each grade was divided into four groups according to their abilities.

The result was that the ``Ones'' never noticed or spoke to the ``Twos'' unless they were wealthy or happened to be next-door neighbors with whom they walked to school. And the ``Threes'' and ``Fours'' did not exist for them; they looked through and beyond them.

We did mingle, however, in gym and in music classes, where we sat in seats for two. I was a 7th-grade student, a ``One,'' and vaguely uncomfortable with this new order.

I could not bring myself to such constraints as practiced by my peers, and walked and talked with everyone in the halls and now and then even sat with a ``Four'' in music class. Totally lacking in musical ability myself, I found it much easier to follow a strong singer, which strangely enough, many of the ``Fours'' seemed to be.

We also mingled in home economics, and, again, a ``Four'' seemed to be my guardian angel in sewing class. Always in a hurry, I laid a pattern out once in the wrong direction and was beginning to cut the material when my ``Four'' neighbor happened to glance over and stayed my hand. She showed me that the bunny rabbits in the material all had to be hopping in the same direction in this dress I was to give to a small relative.

Times were hard and material expensive, so I was truly grateful for her quick eye and willing help. Time after time, she patiently untangled my knotted thread, saving me an embarrassing trip to ask help of our stern instructor.

I was deemed downright odd for this habit of comporting with the lower ``classes'' by the elite ``Ones,'' but redemption was at hand.

When the yearbook was published, I learned that I had been voted the most democratic person in the 7th grade. The word ``democracy'' was one I had never used, but that day it entered my lexicon.

I suspect the school board felt this system would help the teachers and also offer the ``Fours'' an incentive to move up the ladder and join the ``Ones.'' It never worked. What did happen was that the enraged parents of the ``Twos'' descended on the school board and demanded change.

In any event, while this rigorous system was in place, I absorbed, unconsciously, my first lesson in practicing social equality. It was not a product of systematic teaching, but rather a learning by circumstance.

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