Sunday, October 21, 2012
May the Last Be First -- at Least Sometimes
I was at a college over the weekend attending an honors ceremony. B's son was chosen to deliver a short welcoming speech, and then he was among those being honored.
There were approximately 160 students in the hall, being recognized in two separate categories. The provost called up the first group in alphabetical order, and when that was over he started again, calling up the second group in alphabetical order. And what suddenly struck me is how incredibly unfair this is. It's something we do all the time, without even thinking about it. We arrange people alphabetically. The A's always go first, then the B's and the C's and on and on, until we get to those W's and Y's and Z's who always, without exception, bring up the rear.
Now you people named Abbott or Brown or Connors probably never thought it should be any different -- if you ever thought about it at all.
But here's what I saw. As the A's and B's and C's mounted the stage, the audience paid rapt attention, drinking in the ceremony and the significance of the honors being bestowed. The smiles were big; the applause was loud and enthusiastic.
But by the time the kids named Waters and Williams and Winters walked up on stage, the audience had already seen a long line of people come up and take their certificate and shake hands with the provost. The audience was getting tired and bored. They were anxious for the ceremony to be over and done with so they could go about the rest of their day. Now the smiles were merely polite, the applause weak. And you could just tell, instead of enjoying their walk across the stage, the kids at the tail end of the line were feeling pressure to hurry up and get it over with.
Think of the poor boy named Yu. He was last to walk onstage in the second category. The attention of the audience -- including his fellow students -- was not on Yu, but on the end of the ceremony and what came next. So Yu rushed to grab his certificate. He made a quick handshake and heard his fellow classmates shift in their chairs and talk restlessly -- anxious for him to scoot offstage so they could break free of the stuffy auditorium and go out and enjoy the beautiful afternoon. These kids weren't being mean, not at all; they were just being kids.
I remember when I was in high school, and then college. For many of the classes -- not all of them, but enough to notice -- the students were seated alphabetically. The A's and B's and C's sat in the front row. The S's and T's and W's were expected to file into the back of the room. How fair is that?
I couldn't help but think, sitting there in the audience this past weekend, that the provost should have perhaps arranged the first category in alphabetical order, then the second category in reverse alphabetical order. Or, he could have picked a letter randomly and begun there, going alphabetically after that. Or he could have called up students in the order that letters are arranged on a typewriter keyboard.
Or maybe we shouldn't do it alphabetically at all. Maybe kids should be arranged by oldest to youngest, or youngest or oldest, or some other way that doesn't always favor those at the top of the alphabet and treat those at the back of the alphabet as also-rans, postscripts, and bottom-of-the-barrels.
It's not a big thing. It's a subtle thing. But I bet, over time, being stuck at the end can have an adverse psychological effect on many of those who are never first, but always last.
Maybe I'm sensitive to this, since I'm in the second half of the alphabet. But if it bothers me, then it probably bothers many of the T's and W's, Y's and Z's even more. I don't know. I have a friend named Zahn. I'll have to ask him about it.
What do you think?