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?


June said...

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.
I grew up as a "W" and it surely did have a psychological effect.

Janette said...

I know I was thrilled to go from M to B!
I try to change up my seating- often starting from the middle and work tot the ends.

Rubye Jack said...

I've always been in the middle and even with this get bored sometimes by the time my name is called. I've thought names should be called at random for this reason.

Dr. Kathy McCoy said...

I so agree with you, Tom! Growing up at the end of the alphabet could give someone a whole different world view and experience! I've always been an M (having passed up the chance to take my husband's S name) and have had a fairly neutral experience with all this. However, I have a vivid memory of my last graduation ceremony -- getting a graduate degree in clinical psychology at age 50 -- where students received degrees alphabetically. I've been at larger ceremonies, but, for some reason, this ceremony seemed truly endless and tedious even before the diplomas were handed out. I remember well the last student to receive her diploma -- Sherry Winston. She actually got the most applause of the day -- and milked it by taking multiple bows -- because everyone knew she was the last and that our freedom was at hand.

Stephen Hayes said...

Maybe that's what turned Zorro into a bandit; it wasn't helping the poor but revenge for always being last.

Dick Klade said...

Veddy interesting. It would seem random selection would work just find and remove the psychological problems.

Annmarie Pipa said...

My maiden name began with P and my marriage name begins with P., so I have always had the same experiences but was kind of glad i would now what to expect by the time p came around.

Bob Lowry said...

I would have never thought of that but you are absolutely correct. I sat through enough ceremonies and graduations for my daughters to know exactly what you mean. By "T" I was ready to hit the exits.

How unfair.

Friko said...

We are S and W, always have been and always have been at the bottom end.

I noticed that when the countries marched in at the opening ceremony of the Olympics I got tired of the whole thing by about the Gs and switched off. So you’re right about doing things in alphabetical order being not always right, but I can’t think of an alternative which would be generally acceptable.

JHawk23 said...

I'm with those favoring randomness. An occasional switch - alphabetical one year, reverse another, by SSN another year - should do the trick.

schmidleysscribblins, said...

I've been a 'S' all my life and hate the alphabetic approach. I married David who is an 'F' but never took his last name.

At the polling booth we get divided, although I have noticed the upper letters have many more people voting, so in this case the last of the alphabet (me) always votes before the first of the alphabet (david). Finally, the last are first....Dianne

rosaria williams said...

So many things are not fair:
1. Strong boys get picked first to play sports.
2. Boys get elected class president ahead of girls.
3. Tall and handsome always get chosen ahead of short and dull.

Let's face it, this life is hardly fair and we must always try to find ways to make things fair for folks.

Douglas said...

Interesting observation. What do you think of the "line up by height" situations? Having been short for my age until I turned 16, I found myself in the front much of the time and, then, at 16, in the back. My teachers never, that I can recall, assigned seating (alphabetically or any other way) and I usually sat in the back of the class by choice. And, of course, I was the youngest in my family so I essentially came last.

Couldn't being in the last of most lines also result in a desire for attention? And achievement as a way to get that attention?

Warren Lieberman said...

I taught high school in a small town for five years and I made the kids sit alphabetical the first year. It took months for me to learn the names of my students. The Williams, Williamson, Wilsons never got straight. Nor did the any letter that had more than two or three similar names. In a small town, there were often several kids with the same name. The next four years I had them sit wherever they wanted and told them I would move them at random if needed.

I hated alphabetical arrangements.

Heidrun Khokhar, KleinsteMotte said...

Lucky are the ones in the middle.
Did you know if an airline is over booked a person with a K will be bumped up to business class? It's policy.