Editor’s Note: Missioner Tom Little reflects on the difficult struggle that often arises between compassion and fairness.
Overall, teaching English in my first semester at UAC-Carmen Pampa in Bolivia was a positive experience. That is, except for one incident involving a student, which really tore me up.
The university has pretty strict rules in place related to class attendance that, as a professor, I have to enforce. The students are allowed to miss seven classes without penalty but after the eighth absence, they fail the class regardless of their grade and aren’t considered part of that class anymore. At the start of the semester I repeatedly told my students about the policy and that I would not take any notes to excuse absences.
Most students seem to know when they exceed the absence limit and stop showing up to class on their own, except for one girl who fought to be an exception. Throughout the final third of the semester, she continued to fight to stay in the class even after multiple people told her she was out.
She was so persistent that I ended up giving her a chance to make up the missed classes. There was only one problem- she didn’t do what we agreed upon.
Even though I wanted to stand my ground, I kept giving her chances only to see her squander them. Up until the very end of the semester I considered letting her stay in the class even though I didn’t think it was fair. Even though I was following the rules, even bending them sometimes in her favor, I felt like a “bad guy” for not passing her.
I think the reason that this experience was so notable for me was because of the importance that I place on fairness. I didn’t believe that this situation was fair to the rest of the students in the class who had worked so hard to follow the rules.
This situation reminds me of the parable of the vineyard workers (Mt 20) in which all the workers are paid a day’s wage even though some only work one hour. I think at times we can all identify with the vineyard workers who are upset that they worked harder and received the same wage. We have a certain relationship with the rules and fairness in our daily lives that we expect everyone to live by to make things work.
It’s not easy being the person who has to make those decisions in the real world. On one hand, we want to be compassionate to those around us but we also need to enforce the rules sometimes.
Luckily for us, God doesn’t live by that system. We all receive so much of God’s grace- that by very definition we do not deserve. And that is an amazing thing!
Unlike a passing grade in my class, the kingdom of heaven is for all when we are ready to accept it.
Reflection Questions: How can you affirm someone’s dignity in any given situation without giving him or her special treatment at the expense of others?