Off The Escalator
by Chaim Dovid Zwiebel
The New York Times recently reported the story of two prize students who acted more like two prize fighters.
In one corner stood Lisa C., an outstanding senior at Bayside High School in Queens. After Ms. C.'s junior year, her college adviser told her that she had the highest grade-point-average among her peers, and that she would be valedictorian at her class' graduation the following year.
In the other corner stood Paige G., another outstanding senior at Bayside. She performed so exceptionally well in the first semester of her senior year that her grade-point-average overtook that of Ms. C. by 5/100 of a point.
Let's Get Ready to Grumble!
The bell rang for the first round in the Battle of Bayside's Best when Harris Sarney, the school's principal, called the two students to his office shortly before graduation to tell them the wonderful news that they had earned the honor to represent their class at the commencement exercises: Ms. G. as valedictorian and Ms. C. as salutatorian.
Hold the congratulations, Ms. C. objected; she had already been told by a school official that she would be valedictorian, and had so stated in her college application forms. How could she now be only salutatorian?
Mr. Sarney reconsidered and announced that at this year's graduation Bayside would have two co-valedictorians.
But that did not sit well with Ms. G. She, after all, had the higher average, and so deserved to be the sole valedictorian. Sorry, Mr. Sarney said, the difference between the two students' academic records was minuscule, and they would share the title.
Concerned not about her own personal honor, of course, but rather the principle of the matter, Ms. G. took her complaint to the New York City Board of Education. The Board, however, upheld the school's right to appoint two co-valedictorians.
But Ms. G. was not to be deterred. Having surely mastered the lessons in her civics class about the role of the courts in protecting rights and redressing wrongs, she hired a lawyer to commence a legal proceeding. Imagine where the United States would be if Brown hadn't sued Board of Education, or Roe hadn't taken on Wade!
At first, it appeared that Ms. G's principled persistence would be vindicated; a New York State Supreme Court judge ruled in her favor. But her opponents would not stay down for the count. Ms. C. and the Board of Education persuaded an appellate judge, and later a full appellate panel, that the Board's decision to allow the two young ladies to be co-valedictorians should be upheld.
Expressing her family's outrage over the entire matter, Ms. G.'s mother explained: "They tried to round out my daughter's average, which is 95.67, to 95.6, and Lisa's average, which is 95.62, to 95.6. You know when it's 5 or over it goes to a higher number. What do they think I am? Stupid?"
An intriguing question indeed -- one well worth pondering.
Similarly worth pondering is whether "pro-life" and "pro-choice" Republicans advance their Party's cause, or for that matter their respective positions on the abortion issue, by allowing a debate over the precise language of the Republican platform to polarize the Party and paralyze its presidential nominee. In the intra-Republican battle over a platform plank "declaration of tolerance" for supporters of abortion, which will likely lead to a political donnybrook at this summer's Republican presidential nominating convention, the only winners are likely to be the Democrats.
Or ponder whether political leaders in Washington and in state capitals across the country, holding out for their particular budgetary proposals, score political points in the general electorate when their refusal to compromise across party lines leads to the shutting down of government and other temporary or long-term hardships. Just ask House Speaker Newt Gingrich, whose approval ratings plummeted when his stance in federal budget negotiations crossed the thin line from firm to unyielding.
Or, closer to home, ponder whether a Jewish couple involved in a bitter divorce dispute promote their own well-being, or that of their children, when they fight ferociously over every dollar of the marital estate and every minute of visitation privileges, or when they bad-mouth one another to their own children, or when they refuse to co-operate with a bais din in arranging a get. The scars of divorce are inherently deep and painful, but they become deeper and more painful still when each party insists on asserting his or her absolute right.
Or ponder whether Orthodox Jewish groups of different backgrounds and customs, in an effort to preserve their own unique position within the community, enhance Hashem's honor when they refuse to unite for the common Torah good. The sainted founders of the Agudas Yisroel world movement -- Torah giants of Lita, Chassidic masters of Poland, Rabbinic leaders of Germany -- pondered the question closely, and made Jewish history.
A Time for Everything
There are times, of course, when it is imperative to stand one's ground; and, if necessary, to fight to defend it. As Torah Jews, for example, we know that all the high-sounding appeals by the non-Orthodox deviationists for "religious pluralism", "tolerance of diverse viewpoints", "Jewish unity" and the like are nothing other than declarations of war against the very foundations of Jewish belief, which must be resisted to the point of intransigence -- civil and courteous intransigence, but intransigence nonetheless.
Often, though, as is readily apparent to objective observers, disputes are less inherently significant than they may subjectively appear to the immediate disputants, and matters of principle frequently matter only because of the principal's personal pride. Bayside's Best may have learned a great deal in high school, but they failed to learn one of the most fundamental lessons of all: the importance of not allowing petty differences to escalate beyond their level of insignificance.
One of life's most complicated challenges is knowing when to stare down an opponent and when to blink, when to stand firm on the escalator and when to graciously get off. As Koheles taught, there is a time for everything. The trick is to figure out when the time has arrived.