A Child's Take on Justice

Some of my favorite commercials as of late are for Ally Bank. They feature a charismatic, yet shady salesman who tricks various children into thinking he is going to give them something. The first in the series shows two young girls sitting around a table and talking with a man wearing a nicely pressed suit and sporting a hairstyle reminiscent of Bill Clinton’s.

He asks the first girl if she wants a pony, and she says ‘yes.’ He proceeds to give her a plastic toy pony that is the size of her hand, and then asks the other girl if she wants a pony, as well. She also says ‘yes,’ so the man makes a low whistling noise and then a real live pony walks into the room, right on cue. The second girl smiles in excitement, while the first girl looks up at the man and scowls.

“You didn’t say I could have a real one,” she says.

“Well, you didn’t ask,” he answers.

The commercial ends, and then another Ally Bank commercial generally airs directly after it. This one features a little redheaded girl sitting on top of a pink bike. The same man asks her if she would like to take the bike for a ride, and she happily puts her feet on the pedals and begins to move forward. Before she is able to ride the bike a full foot, the man stops her and tells her that if she wants to ride beyond the red lines that are surrounding her on the ground, she must pay a penalty fee. Those lines make up a small rectangle that is quite constricting and technically would not allow her to ride the bike at all. The girl looks up at him incredulously, and it becomes painfully apparent that he is the one in charge and she is powerless to do anything about it. The tag line of each of these commercials is different, but each relays the same overarching message: even kids understand when they are being swindled. Even kids can spot injustice.

And this is absolutely true. In fact, ask any adult if she can remember a time from childhood when she was a victim of some unfair, unjust situation, and she will likely be able to come up with at least a few harrowing tales of siblings that got preferential treatment, or classmates who “swindled” her in one way or another. As the commercial states, children are keenly able to recognize when something makes sense and when it doesn’t. If and when it doesn’t, they often demand some sort of explanation.

Why?” they often ask.

Perhaps it is because asking is all they really can do. Even in the midst of their ability to spot unfairness, most children are powerless to stop it on their own. Like the girls in the Ally Bank commercials, they are completely at the mercy of the slimy salesman, and each commercial ends with an unhappy child who must sit there and learn to deal with it.

When I was in the first grade, I felt there were a few major injustices thwarted upon me, and both of them were standard operating procedures at the private school I attended in Pasadena. It was owned and operated by the Worldwide Church of God, and had two practices that both puzzled and infuriated me.

The first was that we had to wear uniforms. I didn’t say they were both legitimate complaints on my part, but when I was six years old, wearing a uniform felt stifling to an unjust degree. This uniform consisted of a white sailor shirt, a thin cotton tie that was either navy blue or red, and a plaid jumper. I saw little point in requiring everyone to wear the same thing—especially because I had been reading Little House on the Prairie and was obsessed with dressing like Laura Ingles Wilder every minute of the day. I had a collection of calico dresses that my mom had found for me at a thrift shop, as well as an actual bonnet that my aunt had sewn for my cousins as a part of their Halloween costumes. I even went the extra mile and wore my hair in two braids, just as Laura did on the Little House on the Prairie television series.

My get-up was so authentic that a year later, when my family moved to the small town of Auburn, California, all of our new neighbors on the street actually thought that we might be Amish or Quaker because they saw me walking down the road one day wearing my calico dress, bonnet, and braids. When I heard that rumor, I was brimming with pride. I would have no doubt worn that ensemble day in and day out, had it not been for the uniform stifling my freedom of expression.

I know you can all hear the little violin playing already as I recount these tragic experiences, but I must warn you that my second complaint is of a bit more serious note.

Essentially, the private school I attended practiced corporal punishment, and although I thankfully never experienced it firsthand, I always viewed it as a tremendous injustice that both frightened and infuriated me. The way it worked was that if a teacher decided that a student was deserving of a spanking, then the teacher was required to get another teacher to come in and witness to ensure that the one doing the spanking did not go crazy and start wailing away on the kid out of anger. They were allowed to spank the student once, and that was all.

As a critically thinking six-year-old, I didn’t necessarily object to the idea of spanking as a form of punishment, but what I did highly disagree with was the public nature of it. The humiliation of it. For, it was always done in front of the entire class and I hated every minute of watching this ritual play out—especially if one of my friends was getting spanked—or even worse, if the spankee started crying afterwards. I would be flooded with a sense of empathy and a desire to hug them and comfort them. But I couldn’t. I had to just sit there in my desk, like a good little student, with the rage boiling inside me for the injustice of it all.

The problem with this rage is that it builds when you don’t have an outlet for it. I would feel anger for the spanking and then I would feel more anger for having to wear uniforms, and one fine afternoon, the anger inside me collided and I decided to stage my own little protest. I remember we were working on a craft project that day that involved scissors. Perhaps we were cutting little shapes out of construction paper, or making snowflakes—I honestly can’t remember. But what I do remember is that in the midst of it all, I became tempted to cut my stupid tie in half. I looked down at it, hanging below my neck, acting obtrusive and relatively pointless. It was directly in line with whatever I was cutting, and I thought to myself, These scissors could easily slip and just cut this tie right in . . . half. I watched as the scissors I was holding sliced my tie directly in two, and I was left with the bottom half of the tie in one hand, and the scissors in the other.

This was it, ladies and gentlemen: my moment of protest, my single rebellious act against the system, and rather than smiling in glorious triumph, I was instantly struck with the reality of my looming punishment. I had done something wrong, and I could get spanked for it.

From the very first day of kindergarten, I had made a pact with myself that I would never ever, under any circumstances, allow myself to get spanked. In that moment, it occurred to me that all of my efforts to evade punishment had been completely in vain because here I was, impulsively stepping out of line and putting myself in jeopardy for spanking. I couldn’t allow this to happen, so I did the only thing I could think of: I lied. I hatched a little plot, and in fear and trepidation, walked up to my first grade teacher, tapped her on the arm, and told her in the quietest, tiniest voice that I had accidentally cut my tie with my scissors and that I was very sorry.

Even in the midst of saying it, my conscience was screaming at me, She’s going to know! She’s going to see right through this little masquerade and you are going to get the whipping of your life!

But that isn’t what happened. Instead, my kind teacher looked down at me with compassion and told me it was okay. We all make mistakes, she had said.

I walked back to my desk that day feeling a mixture of relief and confusion. On the one hand, I had succeeded in avoiding punishment, but on the other hand, my protest had completely failed. I had ruined my tie for no reason and now my parents would have to buy me another one. This was yet another troubling thought, as they were most certainly going to ask what happened when they saw half a tie hanging around my neck when I came home from school that day. The enormity of it all made me want to cry.

I tell this story not because I learned some great lesson from it, but because I think it had a significant impact on the way I viewed rules and regulations—even the way I viewed God—later in my life. When my family moved to Northern California a year later and I started attending a secular public school full of students who were allowed to do and celebrate tons of things that I wasn’t, my sense of injustice became even more prominent.

In addition, the Worldwide Church of God, like most churches, equated all these rules with God’s commandments, and that made me view God as being mean and distant. Sometimes I would imagine him as an angry judge presiding over a courtroom with a frown and a giant gavel that he would slam onto the podium whenever we got out of line here on earth, which was often since the rules were numerous and the temptations to break them were equally so. I carried that picture with me for decades of my life, and it was a very long journey before I finally recognized that perhaps God could be different than the way man-made religion had presented him, or even the way I envisioned him to be.