From the Left Bank
A Lesson on Inequality

By Peter Toll

Trash_canAfter 30 years of elementary school teaching, my wife knows a good deal about educating children. She has lots of powerful stories. One of her favorites is how the fifth grade teacher helped his class understand human nature and social classes. It goes something like this:

With his pupils all at their desks in the usual four rows, the teacher put his waste basket on the floor beneath the white board at the head of the room. Then he gave every student a piece of paper and told them to write their name on it and then wad it up into a ball as if they were going to throw it.

Once they were ready, he asked them all to throw their paper wad into the waste basket at the front of the classroom. Not a lot went in.

However, nearly everyone in the front row hit the target easily. At that point he said, “Everyone who hits the trash can gets bonus points toward their overall grade today.” He added, “We’re going to do this exercise every day for the rest of the year.”

While those in the front row thought that was an excellent idea, those in the fifth row in the back weren’t so happy. “No fair,” cried a boy from way back. “None of us even got close,” he complained. “The kids in the front will get a whole lot of points, and we won’t get any,” he said. “That’s too bad for you,” said the teacher, “and fortunate for the ones in front.”

Students in the second row considered their chances. “I can hit it,” said one girl, “if I can practice a few times. I’ll have to try really hard.”

Those in the third next to last row didn’t like their chances. It was obvious that the further away they were from the basket, their chances of hitting it diminished more and more. They agreed with the kids behind them. They were pretty much out of luck.

Everyone considered their own situation. The front row students paid little mind to the ones further back. After all, they had theirs and that was pretty much that. Those in the back row felt they had no chance. They were stuck in circumstances over which they had no control. As much as they grumped, their complaints met deaf ears.

After a while the teacher drew the analogy. “Imagine you’re born poor and black — or poor and white, for that matter. That puts you in the back row. Your chances of advancing in life are very, very small. You will have to quit school and get a job to help support the family. If there are no jobs, you may turn to other ways to make money, legal or not. And, if you’re a black male between the ages of 15-25, odds are that at least one in 10 of all your classmates is dead or in jail.”

As the students thought about the analogy, he went on. “Those in front were born white, into good families with good homes. Parents had good jobs and good income. They encouraged and supported college educations for their children. And, yes, they stayed that way as they grew older and never looked back. Few looked at the others behind them, just as we’re seeing now.”

One student in the second row asked about the possibilities of the second and third rows. “Some will succeed but many won’t. The further away you are from strong parental support, education, and a solid work ethic, the less are your chances.”

Exasperated, a student in the back row asked, “That’s no good. What can we do about it?”

“Vote,” the teacher answered. “Vote for someone who will change things and make them better for everybody.”

Peter Toll has lived in Clackamas County more than 25 years, all the while active in Clackamas and Oregon Democratic activities. He is an independent financial advisor with a progressive perspective. You can reach him at