The Irascible Professor SM
Irreverent Commentary on the State of Education in America Today

by Dr. Mark H. Shapiro

"If life were fair, Dan Quayle would be making a living asking 'Do you want fries with that?'"....  ...John Cleese

Commentary of the Day - July 23, 2002:  Doing the Math (Life's Not Fair).  Guest Commentary by Felice Prager.

I understand and am realistic enough to accept the fact that life's not fair.  I was told this enough times when I was a child.  As an adult, it has been reinforced.  But as a parent, the rules of the game are really not fair.  And it's really not fair when you have to tell your child that life's not fair and there is nothing you can do to fix it.

For instance, when our sons were born, we started investing regularly into savings accounts specifically earmarked for college.  Our investments were intelligent and moderately conservative.  We did without, so our children could have their choice of schools in the far-off future.  When we were with other parents and the discussion was investing for college, we sat there smugly gloating, knowing we were prepared.  We were thinking ahead.

So, what happened?

You know what happened.  Just read the financial pages.  Our children's college accounts are now worth a fraction of what they once were, and it's debatable if the value of those investments will ever return to what they had grown to before the stock market readjusted itself.  In addition, who would have ever believed eighteen years ago when we started saving for college that $40,000 would only cover one year at a private university, not four years?

So we told our son to "think state university" which isn't a bad thing at all in our state since we have excellent public universities, but it does take some of the fun and anxiety out of the application process.

But, life's not fair.

Our son is an achiever and did well in high school, but he's not what one would classify as an overachiever, and that's fine with us.  As we would have said back in the sixties, our son marches to the beat of a different drummer.  Our son's drummer is into Japanese animation, martial arts, driving off road, fantasy novels, and his current girlfriend.  There is nothing cookie cutter about him.

An example: our son wrote his required senior term paper about the effect of electronic games on a child's ability to learn.  He received a good grade, but most of the physical processing of the paper occurred the night before it was due, although he maintained that he was prepared and he only had to do the actual writing.  Had it been my term paper, I would have been nervously obsessing and preparing the term paper every day and night until the moment it was due; our son managed to turn out an intelligent, interesting paper with minimal stress and adequate output.  However, our son, who has been working part time since he got his driver's license to pay for car expenses and to buy imported Japanese anime videos, will volunteer for extra hours at work because there is a monetary reward involved.  For him, it all depends on the reward.  To our son, a good grade is cool, but a larger biweekly paycheck is much cooler.

When our son was first registering for high school, his guidance counselor suggested taking as many honors classes as he could to improve his class standing.  This was based on his past grades and standardized test results.  She told him that higher class standing would result in be accepted into a better college and this would place him in line for a better, higher paying job.  So, he signed up for honors classes.  In fact, he took all honors classes.  The way honors classes worked at his high school is like this: honors classes offer the student the opportunity to do more challenging, more rigorous work in exchange for a weighted grade.  A weighted grade raises its value one full grade, so a weighted B is worth 4 points instead of the normal 3 points, and a weighted A is worth 5 points instead of the normal 4 points.  It gives a student the ability to have a Grade Point Average that is higher than a 4.0, placing him higher against other students competing for placement into better colleges.  Our son's guidance counselor considered that an extra advantage for the more able students.

So, what happened?

First, and we found this out AFTER our son completed three years of honors classes, the state universities in our state, the ones we can sort of afford with what we have left in our savings, don't count weighted grades.  Next, neither do many state scholarships.  So for our son, who in his achieving but not overachieving way got mostly B's that were supposed to count as A's in his honors classes, wound up having B's that counted as B's in spite of the more challenging and rigorous classes. It lowered his grade point average from a healthy 4.0 to a 3.0.  And that's not bad, but his friends took the easy way out and had A averages which counted as A averages in regular, easier classes, not honors classes.  And some of them were above him in class standing, got scholarships, and had more time for social lives because they weren't doing all that work that was required for honors classes.  Plus, some of his honors teachers used 93-100 as an A and 84-92 as a B in a school district which normally uses the standard 90-100 as an A and 80 to 89 as a B, another unfair disadvantage.  This was not indicated on our son's transcript.  When asked about this, the principal said the teacher had the prerogative to set his standards where he wanted and the school had no obligation to make a notation on a transcript.  We scratched our heads and wondered why our son did extra work to get into and stay in these classes.  We justified it by looking at the big picture.  He might not have gotten the scholarships or the higher grade point average, but he learned so much more in the honors classes and THAT can't be weighed.

But just the same…

Life's not fair.

Our son was accepted into the state university he chose, and he's happy and excited about it, and life is good.  We figure when we run out of money, we'll pay for his education by getting a loan using his younger brother as collateral.  Our son mailed in his course requests and his dormitory request early.  Fortunately, he got the courses of his choice at the hours of his choice and he was assigned to the dormitory he wanted.

Then last week he got a call from his friend.  This friend almost didn't graduate at all because he lost focus somewhere in his sophomore year.  This friend never took honors classes and his parents felt it wasn't necessary for their child to have a part time job.  The last we heard, this friend was going to a local junior college because he was put on a waiting list for the same university our son is going to.  (I believe his parents filled out his application.)  Anyway, during the telephone call, our son learned that his friend would be attending the same university as our son after all.  But here's the clincher.  For the same rent, our son's friend (who didn't mail his dorm request until after the deadline) will be staying in a posh furnished apartment that is just a block from campus because the university ran out of dorm space for freshman.

Our son might have received weighted B's in Honors Algebra, Honors Geometry, Honors Trigonometry, and Honors Calculus, but he can do the math.

Life's not fair.

© 2002 Felice Prager
Felice Prager is a freelance writer from Scottsdale, Arizona. Her work has appeared in international, national, and local publications, as well as many Ezines.  She publishes WRITE FUNNY! at

The IP would be willing to bet a shekel or two that Felice's son somehow will persevere and overcome his current circumstances.


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© 2002 Dr. Mark H. Shapiro - All rights reserved.