Joshua B. Guild,

       The most tiresome part of my job is trying to reason with adolescents, who are almost by definition totally irrational. Out of the seven hours I am at school with my students, I probably spend less than 40 percent of my time actually “teaching”–subject-verb agreement, colonial geography, the difference between a comet and an asteroid, and the like. The majority of the day is spent negotiating, disciplining, prodding, mediating, consoling, and lecturing. I am constantly amazed at how cruel 11- and 12-year-olds can be.
       Take this exchange between a boy and a girl this afternoon, minutes before dismissal. After some minor confrontation, perhaps an inadvertent bump at the entrance to the coat closet:

       He: She’s being sick and rebellious!
       She: You’re being fat and hoggish!

       What’s the appropriate response to this nonsense? I’m not sure there is one. I can remind them about classroom standards of respect and courtesy, I suppose. Today was filled with such interchanges between students. Perhaps 20 or 30 that I directly overheard or that were brought to my attention, and others I’ll never know about. In every case, I have a few seconds to decide what I’m going to do about it this time. And, of course, I have to be “fair.”
       My kids are obsessed with the concept of fairness. It governs their every decision. What’s hard about this is that in their minds “fair” means “equal” or “the same.” If one person is permitted to do something (or not do something, as the case may be), then everyone should be allowed to do that very thing. If one student gets 15 pretzels at snack time, then heaven forbid his classmate sitting at the next desk should receive 13.
       I struggle to show my students that “fair” doesn’t always mean “equal,” that there are differences between people and situations that cannot be ignored. I ask the class whether it is “fair” to make students who labor with their reading read a difficult sixth-grade text in front of the class, knowing that it is more than they can reasonably manage. Invariably they tell me that, yes, it is fair, “if everyone else has to do it …” Even those students for whom this hypothetical is all too real answer in the affirmative.