the letter and the spirit

      5 Comments on the letter and the spirit

Wow, aren’t you an absolutely lovely and charming person.

The article in question (via Do Not Link) opens with this quotation:

Situational dominance is contingent on local factors.

For example, a 5’4 female teacher with a firm demeanor is situationally dominant over a classroom full of 5-year-olds. If she raises her voice, she can even be intimidating. Outside the classroom situation, however, she’s a short woman in a low-prestige profession who will have trouble commanding general respect unless there are other mitigating factors. Certainly, she’d have problems bossing around rowdy teenagers.

Obviously, the man who wrote this never met my high school math teacher.

Mrs. Bjerke (that’s pronounced Bur-KEE) was not a very tall woman, and to boot she wore thick glasses. Just looking at her, Mr. Dampier would probably just dismiss her as yet another woman who couldn’t even handle a high school class. But see, that’s where he would be wrong. Because Mrs. Bjerke was the chair of the math department, the AP Calculus teacher, and the sort of woman who took absolutely no shit from anybody, whether said person was an unruly teenager in her class or the principal of the high school. The best part? I don’t recall her ever raising her voice. Just by sheer demeanor and presence, she kept us all in line.

My junior and senior years, I participated on the quiz bowl team at my high school. The participants of the quiz bowl were the teams in our athletic league, eight schools scattered across the central part of extreme Northern California, from Yreka in the north to Red Bluff in the south. My high school quiz team was very good, but our arch-nemesis were the Miners of Yreka. They were also very good, and they played Quiz Bowl by the exact interpretation of the rules — which included challenging every question they could possibly challenge. By doing this, they were able to throw other teams off their game. Just a touch of hesitation on the buzzers could mean the difference between victory and defeat, as we learned in the finals of my junior year. I may have made all-league at Quiz Bowl, but I still sputtered all the way back home about their methods.

And I vowed that when the quiz bowl team became mine that I would make sure my team was prepared for the bloody Miners. I made captain of the team — an expected outcome, but one that I was proud of — and I started to get my team together. They were as ready as I was going to make them. Unfortunately, our advisor, the one who had witnessed Yreka’s tactics the year prior, was out on maternity leave by the time the quiz bowl rolled around.

Luckily, we knew this was coming, and the advisor asked me if I’d be cool with Mrs. Bjerke as a stand-in. Of course I was — words cannot express my regard for her. We ran our last couple practices under Mrs. Bjerke’s watchful eye, and we were ready as we were going to be. This was going to be our year.

With eight schools, we each played four other schools, and the two teams with the highest total of points after four rounds was the winner. The common gathering place for all the teams was the library at the host high school, where they kept a chalkboard with the running tallies. And it was there after our second game, watching results from the various games trickle in, that an odd score went up on the board — Yreka had defeated West Valley by a huge margin, but there was a note added that the score was doubled because they could only play one round and not two.

A moment later, the West Valley team walked in. Now, West Valley was a sister high school to mine — we were the two high schools in our district, and they were usually our bitter rivals in almost every sports competition. But at the same time, they were our sister school. So I pulled the WV captain aside and asked him what happened.

He had that anger in his eye that I knew all too well from the year before. Yreka had challenged nearly every question in the round. That’s how they’d only gotten through one round in the time allotted for two. I nodded, and told him Yreka had pulled a similar gambit the year before on us in the finals of the quiz bowl.

We got through a third game, although I was stewing a bit. It was lunchtime, and our opponent in our last game was the aforementioned Miners of Yreka. So I pulled my team together while we were eating and reminded them of Yreka’s tactics and that we’d had positive confirmation they were doing it again per my conversation with WV’s captain.

That’s when Mrs. Bjerke stepped in. “They did what?” And as we relayed the stories, the look on her face was one I knew. It was the one she used when she was disappointed with somebody. “I’ll bring it up at the coach’s meeting here.”

I wish I had been present at that coach’s meeting. I am told that it was epic, the way Mrs. Bjerke tore the Yreka coach apart on sportsmanship and his tactics, about the difference between the letter vs. the spirit of the rules, and the kind of example he was setting for high school kids.

All I knew then was the coach’s meeting had gone long, and we’d had to start our fourth game without either coach. Yreka played hard — they were still a good team — but there was something missing from their spirit. Maybe it was us, determined to crush their cheating ways. That said, the challenges from them were much less than they usually were. About midway through the first half, the Yreka coach slid in, but he just sat at the back of the room, hardly even looking at his team or seeming to care what was going on. Mrs. Bjerke came in shortly after him, and she had that expression. At the half, I asked her what had happened. She just smiled and said that they had a nice conversation about sportsmanship.

The finals were extremely anti-climactic. We played Yreka again. They did even worse than they had in the game we’d played prior. And at the end of it, the Yreka coach asked me about my college plans — he seemed rather pleased I was going to Berkeley. Whether it was the fact I was graduating and couldn’t torment his quiz bowl team anymore, or if he was truly pleased, I couldn’t tell you. But I do know that was the politest he’d been to me in two years.

What’s the point of this? Well, it’s funny how the Yreka coach was very good at following the letter of the rules without caring a whit about the spirit of them. It reminds me of a certain other situation I’ve been following over the past month, in which the prize — whether it’s the actual trophy or the more nebulous prize of annoying folks who don’t think like they do — has taken on such importance that the spirit of the rules can be discarded.

I just think about what happened to the coach who discarded the spirit of the rules in order to win.

It won’t stop them. Those who are convinced of the rightness of their cause will willfully ignore everything that doesn’t correspond to that cause. But I hope someday they meet up with somebody that won’t take their shit.

5 thoughts on “the letter and the spirit

Got something to say? Say it here!