VW Justice

Small Justices

Trailing home from school our fifth grade year, my friend and I hit on an amusement: sticking out our tongues at passing cars. At each car’s approach, we prepared our mouths to do the unspeakable. At just the right time, we thrust forth our tongues and waggled them tauntingly. Euphoria tingled up my spine at our audacity. We’d taken on the social taboos and gotten away with it!   Until.

A VW bug drove past us: a small and unpretentious prey, not like bagging a Cadillac. Still, we gave it our all, pushing our tongues out into the autumn air. As the car passed, we doubled over with laughter. The VW made the block and drove past us again. The driver rolled down her window, poked out her head, and stuck out her tongue at us!

Quite a different sensation now tingled up my spine: Shock. Hurt. Anger. How could she? How mean of her to… Wait a minute.

Standing there, plaid satchel in hand, I experienced for the first time what it was to stand in another person’s shoes: what real‑world justice felt like. If I could find that woman today, I’d give her a big hug (if she’d let me get that close) and use my tongue to better purpose.

Front Brakes Shakedown

Small Justices

Our regular mechanic said my front brakes were down to 30%.

“How long can I drive on them?”

“Depends on how many miles. Most people can go a month, maybe more.”

“Take it to one of those places that specialize in brakes,” said my husband. “It’ll be less expensive.

Or so you’d think.

I pulled into the parking area early one morning and spied an eager male face through the glass door.

“I need my front brakes replaced.”

“Yes, ma’am. We’ll give you a diagnostic inspection. You can wait right there while we do it.”


Twenty minutes later, my cars hung in midair, hood up, stripped of all its tires. It looked so pitiful. I felt as if it were saying, “How could you subject me to such indignity? What did I ever do to you?” The eager man pointed out all that ailed my poor car. Interesting, since two weeks prior our mechanic reported the car to be in good health, except for the front brakes.

“I just want the front brakes replaced.”

“Yes, ma’am. I’ll just get you an estimate.”

More waiting.

The eager man summons me to a computer screen boasting a staggering array of jargon. “You’ll get A done and then Q and then we’ll M and finish up with Z.” He pointed to a number on the far side of $700—$763, if my memory serves.

I stared at the total, which far exceeded the amount we’d spent on the back brakes. “I’ll need to make a phone call.”

“Yes, ma’am.”

I stepped outside and phoned my husband. “What!?!” was his response to the estimate. “No. Tell them to put it back together. We’ll go somewhere else.”
Back inside. “Just put the car back together. We’ll take it elsewhere.”

Raised eyebrows. A mouth opens and closes. Finally, “Now we can just do those pads, if you like.”

Ah. Now.

“No, thank you. I’m more comfortable taking it elsewhere.”

“Okay, ma’am.”

He exits to the garage. Tells the Faginesk character who’d earlier claimed my key: “Just put it back together. She don’t want it done.”

I imagined heads shaking sagely, maybe an eye roll or two. More waiting. Very uncomfortable waiting. At last Fagin presents me with my key and, smiling, tells me he tried to put my seat back where I’d had it (We do what we can for you diminutive females, his tone implied. I’m 5’7”.)

“Thank you,” I manage. As I head out the door, the eager man shouts, “You have a nice day now, ma’am.”

Later my husband says, predictably and accurately, “It’s because you’re a woman.”

I’d entered the brakes shop sporting two breasts (of average size and discretely covered) and was seen as a cash cow to be milked. I hate the injustice of it, of knowing that had my husband entered, tall of stature and deep of voice, he’d have received the service he requested. I hate being dependent his testosterone to maintain a safely drivable vehicle. I hate being eyed either appreciatively or speculatively. I hate feeling inadequate, foolish, and less than. I hate it because it’s unjust. Because mechanics should do their job for each client, not look for ways to fleece ones they perceive to be the hapless lambs of the flock.

So—four stars to our usual mechanic and four rotten tomatoes to Eager and Fagin. In the future do your job. Listen to your clients. Treat each person as you’d like to be treated by a professional in another field. If you arrive at the hospital needing an appendectomy, would you like the medical staff to sell you on a tummy tuck, upper and lower GI series, and a colon irrigation as well?

Didn’t think so.


In matters of truth and justice, there is no difference between large and small problems, for issues concerning the treatment of people are all the same. ~Albert Einstein

Tanks & Convertibles 2

Small Justices

Last week a dark-windowed tank-styled evaluation form nearly ran us off the road. This week we motor beside a top-down convertible. To begin our journey, we’ll need to clarify the purpose of evaluation, which is to elicit improvement: in performance, attitude, or content. As such, evaluations need to be future oriented—vehicles of hope. Yet how often do evaluations garner hope in their recipients? Not nearly often enough.

Why? All too often evaluators turn evaluations into critiques, venting, or self- aggrandizement. Critiques serve to inform consumers about a product or service so they might discern how best to spend time and/or money—needed but different from evaluating. And neither venting nor self-aggrandizement serve evaluation’s purpose: channeling Regina from Mean Girls just gets someone run over by a bus. To provide a hope-driven evaluation, the evaluator needs to roll down the top, look the evaluated in the eye, and be eyeballed in return.

But wait! Anonymity is key to many forms of evaluation. What student would risk future classes with a professor she described as “needs improvement?” Exactly. The hierarchical structure of our society renders these forms, if not necessary, at least expedient. I suggest a change in attitude: a willingness to form teams rather than to hoist corporate ladders. A team works best when the members know and value one another and help each individual find and use his/her strengths.

How does that happen? We dialogue. The Quakers’ circles of trust can, in many ways, serve as our model. Circles of trust exist to promote discernment, which is tangentially different from evaluation, but the framework suits. The evaluated speaks his/her piece, perhaps a self-evaluation, as others listen without interrupting. Thought is given and questions are posed for clarification only. In a season of silence (for the Quakers silent prayer) the “team” contemplates the evaluated’s potential and then offers suggestions. Fellow members might suggest that, although they consider John hopeless as second baseman, he possesses a good eye and might be right at home in right field. So the team offers the suggestion and promises support. Johnny leaves the meeting, perhaps disappointed, but with a measure of hope. Maybe he’ll like right field…

But let’s get back to that convertible. Since we’re motoring down a common highway, we might as well help others along on their drive. If his vehicle seems better fitted for the scenic route, we suggest an exit ramp. If she needs to slow down a bit, we point out her speedometer dial. All the while, we’re moving forward together.

Evaluations can be vehicles of hope rather than vehicles of torture. They can point us in promising directions instead of ripping up the road before us.

Thoughts anyone? What are your musings about top-down convertible evaluations?

Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. ~Martin Luther King, Jr.

Tanks & Convertibles

Small Justices

A close friend recently received one of THOSE evaluations. You know the kind: the sort that makes you want to spit nails, then nosedive into a deep hole and pull in the dirt over you. It put me to thinking once again about evaluations: about how we need them and how I generally hate them. I’ve gotten the awful kind: “I cannot muster significant passion for your work to represent it to publishers” (ouch!) And “this is perfect, don’t dare change a thing” (gag).

We’ve all gotten evaluated: by a teacher, by a boss, by those we served. And how often did those evaluations empower and encourage us? Not often enough. So let’s consider what ails most forms of evaluation, and then envision healthier possibilities.

Imagine one of those faux tanks with darkened windows motoring down the roadway, muscling your smaller vehicle aside. You yield—who wouldn’t with potential destruction filling the rearview mirror? As you shift lanes and restart your heart you wonder, Who’s behind the wheel of that monster?

Now imagine on the same stretch of road a convertible, top down, cruising, the driver hailing you. S/he gives a thumbs-up for your excellent lane change and, when needed, hollers, “You’re straddling my lane: over to the left, please.” Which vehicle and driver has the best potential for producing long-term positive effects on your driving?

The faux tank serves as a metaphor for our current evaluation modes and the convertible for our hoped-for evaluation vehicle. So just what ails that tank?

  • Misuse of Power: I am in a position of power over you; I can do to you as I wish. In tank-styled evaluation the evaluator dares the recipient to disagree. Want to keep your job? Get a referral? Pass my class? I have determined what is wrong with you. Accept it. Move aside.
  • Misuse of Anonymity: Driving around in a giant, insulated tin car encourages arrogant (size does matter) and aggressive (take that!) behavior. Aggressive impulses inherent in our human condition take the wheel behind those tinted windows. In the same way, anonymous evaluations that exclude the give and take of egalitarian relationships bring out the harpy in evaluators. “Had it been me, I would have known to do X, but he did Y and made a mess of it.” The evaluated is denied the opportunity to express his/her truth or even to request clarification.
  • Misuse of Guidelines: Those white lines on the highway serve a purpose, but they also limit direction. That’s needed when we’re driving, but black and white thinking undermines out-of-the-box thought and action. Evaluation forms laid out in yes/no, either/or, poor/fair/good, effective/ineffective formats inhibit an evaluator’s experience of the evaluated. Postmodernists have shown us the limitations of black and white thinking, but our evaluation methodology has yet to catch up. Let’s make room for the creative ATVs to maneuver.
  • Misuse of Perspective: We now add a commanding and impatient passenger to our faux tank: “Get me there now.” The faux tank driver barrels down the highway, assessing your vehicle as s/he blows by. How can you get a thoughtful or thorough evaluation? In the same way, evaluators are handed forms at the end of a seminar, the close of a class, or when the webinar wraps. There’s good reason for the practice—few participants respond to evaluations provided later. But urging folks to evaluate when their minds are already heading toward the parking lot replaces accuracy with expediency. Recall a teacher or a boss who impacted your life for good. How long did it take to appreciate that person’s work?

More vehicular thoughts next time! What are your thoughts so far?

Justice is a certain rectitude of mind whereby a man does what he ought to do in circumstances confronting him. ~ St. Thomas Aquinas

Small Justices

Small Justices

I’ll be honest: I prefer to write, let the piece sit a few months, read it with new eyes, edit, edit, edit… Thus, I lean toward novel writing rather than toward journalism—or toward blogging. Yet my deeper yearning— to connect with readers—won’t turn me loose.

So here goes. Each Tuesday (unless I am struck down by a crippling bout of stomach flu) I’ll post a piece in what I’m calling the “Small Justices” series: my effort to identify and offer alternatives to daily, unrecognized injustice.

Why “Small?” Because even small acts of injustice callous our souls, whereas small acts of justice muscle them. Also, “Small” is gentle sarcasm, because there is no small. It all matters. It does.

Why “Justices” when injustice is what rankles me? Because I’m (and I suspect you are, too) more apt to move away from something destructive when I have something constructive to move toward.

Next Tuesday , Sept. 9, I start with a piece titled “Evaluations: Needed or Just Needling?” Hope to meet you back here then!


In matters of truth and justice, there is no difference between large and small problems, for issues concerning the treatment of people are all the same. ~Albert Einstein