When I was in sixth grade, I noticed some kids were part of a secret conspiracy. During reading groups, they'd sneak away and return an hour later without any explanation. I made a list of what they might be doing:
- Cow tipping
- Tractor pull
- Sowing corn
You know, the usual stuff kids do when they live in East Central Illinois. I read the list over and scratched out "Cow tipping." There weren't any cows nearby.
After a while, I realized they had treasure when they came back. They had hard candy. I scratched out my previous list and wrote a new one:
- Beating up kids for their lunch money
- Reading to the blind elderly in nursing homes.
You know, the usual stuff kids do in East Central Illinois.
It occurred to me that I could just ask where they were going. However, I sported a terrible haircut and coke-bottle glasses, and as I was into computers, science fiction, and Dungeons and Dragons. Asking was likely to get me beaten up during recess. Kids like me weren't allowed to talk to kids like them.
You know them: the ones who were praised for picking on kids like you. The bullies.
One day the teacher mentioned a special reading group, and it all clicked into place. These kids who picked on me, ridiculed me, hit me were all smarter than I was. They went off to do advanced reading while the rest of us toiled away in our ignorance.
I decided to get into that class. Once, my teacher noticed I'd skipped ahead in the math book and done some beginning algebra exercises (variables, easy for anyone who'd programmed), and she'd put me in the advanced math group. I'd try that again.
But nothing seemed to work. Not reading out loud. Not correcting other kids when they mispronounced a word. Not reading extra books. I got nothing out of it (although I did get approved for additional bullying at recess).
Finally, I approached my teacher. "I think I should be in the special reading group."
She picked her words carefully. "I don't think you qualify."
I didn't give up. There was free candy at stake. Free candy your parents couldn't stop you from eating.
I fell back on the last refuge of the overly-pampered: I nagged. I wheedled. I begged.
Eventually, my teacher agreed to let me try out. I was taken to the band room and given an article to read aloud. It was about wooly mammoths and, as a lover of dinosaurs and other prehistoric animals, I plowed through it. They asked me a few questions about the material, which I answered easily.
"That was thirteenth reading level," they said.
I smiled, proud of myself.
"You don't need to be in this class."
The smile fell. They noticed my disappointment.
"Why do you want to be in a remedial reading course?"
These kids weren't sneaking out for advanced reading. They were sneaking out for regressed reading. The unfairness overwhelmed me. They were worse at something than me, but were rewarded for it.
And the world clicked into place. We reward those who are below average. It rankles to this day. Actually, it rankles more this day in particular.
Why? Because we just made Donald Trump president.