The Myth of the Level Playing Field

Chamberlain Elementary School circa 1971 had a wonderfully bumpy playground.  Responding to the recess bell meant running full speed down the giant hill to monkey bars nestled beneath massive trees that shaded us from the sun and caused dirt to grow instead of grass.  Rain runoff had created crevices in the earth and made tripping hazards of exposed tree roots, causing countless falls and eternal springs back up again.  God’s natural landscape was our field of dreams; blue jean knee patches and elbow Band-aids our badges of honor.

To this skinny little libertarian, the magnificent unevenness of the playground represented pure freedom.  The rugged individualism of running, jumping, climbing, balancing, and swinging  presented far greater opportunity than did organized team sports.  The adventure of exploring, of finding the edges, of not knowing the limits, this was the stuff of growing up.

Kickball-2Each day at some appointed time, Ms. Johnson would blow her shrill silver whistle, and with a shout or a sigh we would fall in line to be chosen for the level playing field.  Stress always ensued as some were picked first and others of us last, team leaders tight-rope walking the line between competition and compassion.  The unmistakable elastic twang of the big red kickball would ring out amid shouts of exclamation, confrontation, and lamentation as we all tried to prove to ourselves and our peers that we were winners.  As grade school tempers inevitably flared, they were just as quickly stifled by Ms. Johnson’s whistle.  Shouts became murmurs, dirt was kicked, and passions quickly subsided as man-made rules of order were enforced.  Eventually one team or the other would win, the results absent from any historical record.

Of course, games with rules are good things. They prepare kids for life in a society built on the rule of law.  They cultivate healthy competition and they teach discipline, teamwork and a sense of fair play.  But fairness is elusive.  The field rarely seems level.

Kickball, like life, was never fair.  Kelly Osburn could run faster than me, Billy Bob Fergerson could throw better than me, and Floyd Starling could kick the ball further than anybody (legend has it that he once kicked a ball all the way up the hill and onto the roof).  Some children were blessed with natural athletic talent, and some were not.  Some had intact, happy homes; some did not.  Some could afford nice clothes; others were obviously poor.  The point?  None of this was relevant to the rules of kickball.  The rules of the game are blind to the individual’s natural talent or socioeconomic status. A flat piece of ground can never even out the distribution of talent.  No playing surface will ever ease the pain of poverty or soften the sorrows of an unhappy childhood.  Nor should it.

Justice, like rules, must be blind in order to be fair.  Fairness does not dictate that life’s advantages should be somehow eliminated.  Leveling the field does not mean tilting it against those who started with a leg up.  Doing so does not help the less fortunate; it harms them.  It harms them by robbing them of the character-building experience of defeat. It harms them by depriving them of the joy of working harder to overcome the challenges, beat the odds and win. It leads them down a primrose path to disappointment instead of allowing a dose of reality to guide them in a direction more in line with their true talents.  Had I not been given the opportunity to be chosen last at kickball, I would never have known that reality existed in the world of sport, or in the game of life.  I would never have searched out and found the unique talents that defined and developed the adult I was to become.

Life’s playground is often bumpy.  Rather than teach our kids that they always deserve a level playing field, maybe we should teach them to embrace the ups and downs of a not-so level life.


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