Mitike and I have come to the Juneau Arts and Humanities Center to watch her friend Carmen dance in the JDU dance recital. We settle ourselves excitedly into our seats, and we wait for the lights to dim and the show to begin. TK and Carmen are good friends in preschool; in her little hand, TK clutches a special toy she picked out to give Carmen after the show. But when it's time for Carmen's dance -- when all the little 4- and 5-year-old girls come twirling out in their black leotards and their blue clouds of tutus, my child begins to glower in the seat next to me. Anger rises from her like heat.
I lean over. "Are you okay?"
She mutters through clenched teeth: "Those blue dresses are UGLY!"
I'm so shocked I can't respond for a moment. My child never speaks this way. She's so empathetic, so kind, so loving. And the blue dresses are quite beautiful. I frown to myself, and then react with a stern whisper: "That is NOT okay, TK! That's your friend!"
TK tries to squirm out of her chair and begins to wail. I'm embarrassed. Why is she acting this way? I pull her firmly onto my lap, and prepare to mutter another stern whisper in her ear, when my Mama sense finally kicks in. On the stage, Carmen and the other little girls flutter around like blue butterflies.
"Sweet girl," I whisper to my daughter, "do you wish YOU had a blue dress like that? Do you wish YOU were on stage?"
And then she begins to sob -- great big tears rolling down her round little cheeks. "I want a beautiful blue dress!" she cries. "It's not FAIR that Carmen is four and I'm not!"
I hold her close, and we watch the show, and we even manage to congratulate Carmen at the end and hand her the toy. Carmen's mom and I quietly equalize everything by handing the girls identical frosted cupcakes, too, which fixes most problems. But I keep thinking about fairness -- about justice -- about ethics as my three-and-a-half-year-old struggles to understand them. . .
Like most preschoolers I know (and I know quite a few), TK believes everything in the world should be "fair". Out hiking in the woods, she wonders, "Mommy, wolves only eat bad rabbits, right?" On Memorial Day, when I try to explain all the U.S. flags on the veterans' graves in the cemetery, TK asks solemnly, "But they were all good guys, right?" When Easter rolls into our lives and TK wants to know why, I tell her the story of Jesus' death. "But that's not FAIR that they killed him!" she exclaims. "He was so GOOD!" (She is very satisfied by the justice of Jesus' resurrection). And one night at dinner, after listening as we discuss the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, TK asks, "Were the people who spilled the oil bad? Who did it? Will Obama put them in jail?"
Don't we all want glowing, absolute answers to those questions? Don't we all long for fairness -- for wars to be fought for just causes, for martyrs to die at the ends of truly evil people, for environmental disasters to happen because identifiable people committed identifiably heinous acts for which they can be punished?
Everyone above a certain age (possible three-and-a-half) knows: the world is not fair. Sometimes, you do have to wait until you're four so you can be in the dance class. Sometimes, deep-water oil rigs do break and millions of barrels of oil do spill out into the ocean.
But some of us believe the world IS capable of a little more fairness -- a little more justice. We fight for it, determined. I want to nurture that struggle within TK. I refuse to be the parent who merely shrugs and says, "Well, life isn't fair."
Last week, as Ali and I led a preschool storytelling class at Juneau's Fine Arts Camp, I attempted to narrate the story of "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer." Ali played the ostracized reindeer with the weird nose; the ten preschool-age girls were supposed to be playing the other reindeer. But while their peers happily turned their backs on poor Rudolph and refused to let him join in any reindeer games, TK and another little girl refused. They cheerfully sabotaged my story's plot, extended their little hands to Ali, and pulled her into the circle.
Now THAT'S fair.
I just hope my child would have included an ostracized reindeer wearing a blue-cloud tutu, too.