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  • Ashwin Mahesh

The accumulation of opportunity

Updated: May 30, 2019

For a few months in 2000, I used to live in Hampton, Virginia - original home of the great space missions of NASA. But apart from this, Hampton is famous for one other thing. In 1634, the first free public school in the United States was established in this town. When I discovered this, I spent a lot of time afterward trying to understand different approaches to universal education, in particular the education of children without parents, who face particularly severe difficulties.

In the course of this I learned about a very inspiring organization called the Big Brothers of America - which matches children in schools with adults who can be role models for them. Thinking I could make myself useful in this way, I applied to be a Big Brother, and after some weeks of background checks and other clearances, I was 'matched' with a young boy around 6 or 7 years of age - we'll call him Neil. He had no father, and his teacher told me to keep that in mind. I didn't quite understand how to keep that in mind, but at least I knew it.

He was a cheerful boy, and loved to play various games in the school yard. I wasn't really sure how to be a role model to him, to tell the truth, so I thought I would ask him directly if there was anything I can do to help him. After some amount of mumbling he managed to mutter that he was not doing particularly well in class, and that his teacher had told him to 'learn something from Dr Mahesh' and get up to speed with the rest of the class.

I thought about that for a while, and decided that since I didn't know much about role-modeling, I would keep things simple. He felt he didn't know anything, so I would try to get him to feel that he could learn things, and know them quite well. I would try to make him feel better about himself. So we made a deal. We agreed that when we meet, we would not say "Good Morning" to each other. Instead, I would ask him, "what is the secret password?" and he would say, "what I know will make me special".

It seemed like a silly game, but it caught on, maybe by fluke. He understood that I was trying to connect his learning to his self-esteem. And once he even blurted out something like "I wish I knew things like my friends in class do".

Finally, I had stumbled on a problem I could solve! So I taught him speed math - mainly how to calculate the hell out of double digit multiplications in your head without needing any pencil, paper etc. I used to do exponentials in my head in high school and college, which impressed some people, so I figured in some nerdy way that must be cool in second grade too. It wasn't quite Shakuntala Devi, but at 7 years it would do.

And a remarkable thing happened. The next week when I met his teacher, she asked me, "what did you tell Neil?" I said, nothing in particular, I just taught him how to do sums quickly. It seems that thrice during her class that week, she had asked the class to do multiplication with double digit numbers, and for the first time that she could remember, Neil was the first to get the answers right, and was beaming from ear to ear. I was quite happy - for him and with myself! He started to do better in some classes, and felt more and more like he was with peers, rather than behind them. I hoped for the best.

I moved out of the area within weeks of the program starting, however, and Neil needed a different Big Brother. A few weeks later, visiting some of my friends in the area, I thought I would drop in on the school and see how he was doing. But he wasn't there. His mother had some problem, and he couldn't continue in the school as a result. The Department of Child Services had placed him in a foster home in a different town.

I realized some thing through that spring which I've carried with me ever since. What you and I call 'merit' is often no more than the accumulation of opportunity. It wasn't Neil's fault that he didn't have a father. It wasn't his fault that his mother had problems. It wasn't his fault that he ended up in Social Services care. It was just his bad luck.

In each one of us, there is a potential to be special. A great society is one that tries to make this potential come true in all its citizens' lives, regardless of the circumstances of their birth. If we try, a few more people will make it out of the misfortune of their circumstances, and into the full bloom of their potential.

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