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Life at the end

I was never the line leader in elementary school. The spot was always reserved for Emily Abbot or, whenever she was absent, Brian Bearfield. Never Frisbee Zjackson. The reason was not because I was a troublemaker, nor because Emily and Brian were superior at their kindergarten studies. The coveted position was decided solely by where our last names fell in the alphabet—my teacher’s standard method of selection.

The injustice of alphabetical order grieved me and permeated virtually all my school life. I was always given last choice on cubby holes, and therefore stuck with one on the top row. This made retrieving my 64-pack of Crayola’s (with the built-in sharpener) tough even on tippy toes. In high school, all of the nice textbooks were selected before I had my pick. The leftovers often had loose pages and duct-taped covers; it really was a marvel of physics that my Physics book didn’t completely disintegrate.

Just recently, I discovered that alphabetic discrimination exists beyond the realm of my schooling woes. A 2008 study by Daniel E. Ho and Kosuke Imai of Princeton University found that in primary elections, political candidates listed first on the ballot can double their percentage points simply because they are blessed alphabetically. Perhaps Hester Prynne’s scarlet “A” would be worse if it were a “Z.”

Back in my kindergarten class, I finally scrounged up the courage to confront my teacher before we assembled in the hall.

“Can you draw our names out of a hat for line leader?” I suggested politely. “Under the current system Emily and Brian receive preferential treatment for an arbitrary reason.” (I was a very precocious kindergartner.)

“I suppose it’s only fair,” Mrs. Littleton said with a smile. Much to my delight, she then instructed us to write our names on slips of paper. As soon as all the names were collected into a snowman jar in the front of her desk, she reached in for a name. I desperately hoped the honor of line leader would finally be bestowed upon me.

“Ellen Singh,” she called. Ellen, a shy girl, stood up feebly, but I could see she was beaming. And the joy quickly spread to me. Finally, the alphabetic monarchy had been overthrown, and democracy tasted sweet.

Encouraged by my early victory, I continue to seek justice and equality—except rather than slips bedecked in crayon, my quest manifests itself in different ways. In the contemporary world, it seems people have grown accustomed to inequities, but complacency is treacherous in an era of new challenges. People must become increasingly active, holding their leaders and themselves accountable. Call me naïve—I am young and idealistic—but I genuinely believe that I can make a difference in this world, whether it be via public policy reform, academia, non-profit work, or wherever life takes me. I have so many plans for this world, and I intend on seeing them through.

All things considered, life at the end of the twenty-six has taught me a great deal—I’ve even come to embrace it. The “Z” is pretty fun to write in cursive, and being called last in roll means I have more precious seconds at my locker before class. And if I were on someone’s hit list, I’d probably be last. Most importantly, I’ve learned that people, even when they’re at the bottom, can face up to challenges. Injustice never has to be the status quo.