Life Isn't Fair
Updated: Aug 23
When I was in grade school, my best friend was a girl named Trina. I wanted to be her. Everyone did. At ten, she was already tall, thin, and highly composed. She was the kind of girl who made braces seem so cool you wished you needed them. Every morning she would sit at her desk beside me and arrange her writing instruments from a pink plastic pencil case. Her pens were always fine point. Her pencils were always funky with graphics on them of happy faces. I can still remember her looped cursive as she penned a short story or history assignment. It was neat, clear, and elegant, with curly cue hearts for dotted i's. My pencil case was a ziplock baggy containing several chewed standard wood case #2's and a ratty-looking eraser.
The teacher clearly favoured Trina over everyone else. He always called on her to answer questions, read excerpts from books, and clean the chalkboard erasures. By virtue of the attention he lavished on her, my self-esteem plummeted, and I became hyper-aware of all my shortcomings.
'No matter what I do,' I moaned to my Mother, 'he never notices me. No matter how hard I wave my hand or stick my arm in the air, it’s always Trina, Trina, Trina.’
'My darling,' she said, looking me in the eye, 'You may as well learn, sooner than later, that life isn't fair.'
This is a bitter pill to swallow when you are only 10, but I knew it was true. Pretty girls get noticed, and I was never one of them. I wore thick glasses and had ridiculously frizzy hair. Everyone, even relatives, always talked about how sweet, lovely, and delightful my friends were, as though I needed to be reminded of my good fortune in having them in my life. I'd watched Miss America on television and knew that walking down a runway in a bikini and heels might be in their future, but it would never be in mine.
What I didn't have in looks, however, I had in brains. I was smart. Not just book smart either, but clever, intelligent, creative smart. In grade 6, I recorded a horror radio play about a man who flooded Miami Beach by overflowing the sewer system, trying to flush too many body parts down too many toilets. It was funny and irreverent and ghoulish.
Can you tell me what happened here today?
From what I understand, Mrs. Brown in Apt. 3C flushed her toilet, and suddenly there was a geyser. The next thing I knew, the entire building was washed out to sea.
Has there been any sign of Mrs. Brown since?
Last I saw, she was clutching her commode and drifting towards Cuba.
This resulted in a visit to the Principal's office.
'Tasteless, gratuitous, unsophisticated, disturbing' were the adjectives he used to describe my work. At home I was cut off from watching Saturday afternoon Vincent Price movies and reading anything Edgar Allen Poe.
At the time, I was also writing and drawing a graphic novel featuring a mobster/librarian called Caponatone, who lured unsuspecting victims into his lair with the accessibility of much-needed information. If a newspaper article appeared detailing kids damaging gravestones or hurting squirrels, Caponatone would engage his private detective, Mr. Discreet, to find out where the perpetrators lived, then leave a flyer in their mailbox that read:
WISE GUYS PUBLIC LIBRARY - 8 am to 8 pm.
We's got all the answers to all your questions.
'Whatta you looking for?" Caponatone would ask a greasy teen.
'Oh, you know,' the unsuspecting victim would smugly reply, 'like, information on how to like, drown kittens or, like, slingshot squirrels, or like mess up little old ladies…that sort of thing.'
Then Caponatone would suggest a book riddled with bad advice guaranteed to get assholes arrested, ostracized, or, best of all, make them cry.
Caponatone had lots of special characters. Miss Dimple, his side-kick (who wore glasses); Miss Adventure - his daughter, who was always getting into trouble; Mr. Slick - the two-timing police chief; and Mrs. Know-it-All, a reporter on the Daily Dish. My classmates loved the comic, but my homeroom teacher was less impressed. Back to the Principal's office, I went.
'Mr. Koerner and I think you could focus your energy on more important things,' he told me. 'We feel this kind of humour isn't appropriate for a girl…of 10. We believe there are better outlets for your imagination."
I didn't tell him I'd been reading MAD and Creepy magazine for the past five years, along with Harriet the Spy, Sense and Sensibility and Oliver Twist.
He continued, 'Greendale's public speaking contest is coming up. You should apply. There is nothing more important than knowing how to speak well in public. The ability to master your fear and convey important information on interesting topics cannot be overstated.'
The rules were simple: All students were required to write and present on any topic of their choice in front of an adjudicator (my homeroom teacher). The winner would be featured in the newspaper and receive a medallion on a ribbon that you could wear around your neck. He showed it to me. It was the most beautiful thing I had ever seen and looked every bit as impressive as any Olympic medal.
I had never won anything before in my life, not even in track and field, where admittedly, almost everyone gets a ribbon for something, and I was determined to make that prize my own. Here it was, an opportunity to be noticed for my ability and not for how I looked. I was confident that medallion would be mine.
When I was about four, once every few weeks, my Mother would take me to the Niagara Falls historical museum. I loved the dusty sarcophagi and the taxidermied two-headed calves. I had no idea what any of that had to do with Niagara Falls except to solidify my already strong opinion that the city was just a big creepy carnival filled with stories about ghosts, crazy entrepreneurs, and daredevils. As you exited the museum through the gift shop, there was a wax dummy of Annie Taylor, the first person and only woman to go over Niagara Falls and live. She was popping out of a barrel in a circle of plexiglass, made to look like water, holding a dazed and confused-looking cat. Blood trickled down the side of her face to her blouse as she looked to the heavens with thanks. She was adventurous, she was a woman, she went over with a cat. It was the trifecta of salacious conjecture, local history and scandal. Perfect for my essay.
I knew my big competition was Trina. She confided in me that she was writing an essay on being the only girl in a household of boys entitled, 'Life Among the Savages.'
'That's a good title,' my Mother said as she made me my breakfast.
'Maybe I should write about us.' I pondered, all my confidence starting to wane. 'I could entitle it: LIFE AMONG THE SAUSAGES on account of how much pork we eat.'
'That's a terrible title,' she said, 'And you need my permission to write about me, which I expressly forbid.' Then she tossed me a slice of bacon and told me to go outside and stop bothering her.
On the contest day, I wore a pair of jeans and a tee shirt with a cardigan that I thought made me look bookish. I may also have worn a bow tie.
‘3160 tons of water go over Niagara Falls every second. From the shoreline, it's an incredible feat to behold. But imagine what it would be like to go over that precipice in a barrel and live to tell the tale.'
I was on a roll, providing the proper mood and inflection.
'Imagine the horror as you started to fall. Down. Down. Down. Your heart catches in your throat. Your saliva dries up. You are deafened by the roar of the cataract.'
You could hear a pin drop. I continued on.
'In conclusion,' I said, 'Annie Taylor had done what no other person had dared. As she emerged from her barrel, clutching her cat, a streak of red blood dripped down her face and pooled on her freshly pressed blouse. Slightly shaken by her adventure, Annie waved to the crowd and said, 'Dare to dream, my friends. Dare to Dream.!"
It was rare for my Mother to attend such a thing, but she was there in the audience cheering me on. She was always brutally honest in her assessment of anything I did so, it meant a lot when she said, 'Now that was a great speech. Captivating, dramatic and assured.'
Trina took the stage next. She wore a pink dress with a velvet ribbon tied around her curls and patent leather mary janes that caught the light and sparkled. She didn't appear even a little bit nervous as she placed her speech on the podium. She looked up and smiled. Was that makeup on her face? Oh my god, I thought to myself, I'm screwed.
'Our house is old and noisy and full. There are six of us, counting Mother and Father, and thousands of books, and socks, along with a couple of turtles and a dog…"
'My older brother succeeded in fighting his way to the fourth grade without showing any noticeable signs of contact with education.’
'Hey,' my Mother whispered, 'I've heard this somewhere before.'
The notion that Trina might have plagiarized her essay was impossible for me to comprehend, yet later that night, my Mother dug up an old Reader's Digest and showed me Trina's essay almost word for word.
‘Should I say something?’ I asked my Mother
‘No,’ she said, ‘You'll only embarrass her and then feel awful about it.'
In bed I kept wondering, what would Caponatone do?
The next day our teacher stood in front of a school assembly.
'I wish to thank everyone who took part in yesterday's event. So many interesting topics and delightful presentations.'
'In the end one essay emerged as the clear winner, although we all agree that there were no losers at yesterday's event.'
More applause. I sat on the edge of my seat, ready to take the stage.
'And now, without further ado, I am proud to announce this year's public speaking award goes to - Trina Banks!'
I didn't win the medallion but I did learn some very valuable lessons that day.
One: Winners can sometimes be losers.
Two: Teachers can sometimes be liars.
Three: Knowledge was power.
Four: Things are not always as they seem.
And Five: Mother was right. Life wasn't fair.
Two days later, we were given our essays back with our marks. I got 95. Trina received an 82. Now, I was confused, and my Mother was too. She called the teacher for an explanation.
‘Yes,' he said, 'It's true that Lezlie got a higher mark on the content of her essay but not on the presentation. When that was factored in, Trina was the clear winner.'
The next day my Mother bought a silver five-dollar coin, had a hole drilled in the top and fashioned a chain through it. After dinner, she presented it to me, saying, 'You know, I don't subscribe to praise that hasn't been earned or attention that isn't warranted, but you deserved to win that public speaking award, and I want you to have this to remember that when life isn't fair, it doesn't mean you aren't deserving.'