Thinking About Numbers Lesson on the Spirit of Excellence

Today our junior youth group talked about “excellence.” Part of this is efficiency. “Have you ever heard someone use the word ‘efficiency?'” the animators asked the participants.

“You did your homework very efficiently,” Mohammed quoted a teacher.

“You always hear people saying the economy should be more efficient,” said José.

“Efficiency means doing more with less,” we said. The math representation is the ratio of output over input. Today’s Thinking About Numbers lesson presented the junior youth with different pairs of ratios of resource use and asked them to choose the most efficient: a farm that yields 190 bushels of maize using 75 kg of fertilizer, or one that produces the same yield using 100 kg of fertilizer (a problem that is really asking them to consider sustainability); a factory producing 10 tons of paper each day while employing 50 workers, or one producing 20 tons with 80 workers; a student who reads 40 pages in 75 minutes, or one who reads 20 in 60 minutes. “That’s me!” joked “tall” Carlos after reading the description of the less efficient student. We laughed.

The lesson also suggested that efficiency used by itself can be harmful. Another part of excellence is quality. After choosing the most efficient options, the junior youth were asked to reexamine their choice of the preferable paper factory if the mathematically more efficient one exploited its workers, causing damage to their health and well-being. They were asked to reexamine their choice of the preferable rate of reading if the student who read 40 pages didn’t understand what she read, while the student who read 20 pages learned from the material.

“So it’s a question of whether producing more paper or making sure that the workers live well is more important,” we said while discussing the first scenario.

“As a saying says, ‘Life comes first,” said Mohammed. The junior youth switched their answers in both situations.

The lesson then gave them a list of different professions and asked them what attributes a person working in each should develop in order to improve their quality. We came up with some truly beautiful descriptions. “A nurse should be careful and compassionate.” “An accountant should be honest and trustworthy.” “A teacher should be joyful and kind.”

“Why would you say a teacher should be joyful?” one of the animators asked little Carlos, who had picked the description.

“Because if they’re mean, people will feel bad and nobody will come to school,” he said. “And they should be kind, in case you have to tell them a secret.”

“Yeah, teachers are supposed to help you,” added José. A truly beautiful conversation about the kind of world that we want to live in, where people put care and joy into the things that they do for others, and strive for fairness.

“So, what was this lesson about?” the animators asked afterwards. “Efficiency,” said Jose. “Quality,” said Mohammed. “Yes,” we said. “And these two things together, you can call ‘the spirit of excellence.”

Finally, we played a game that involved the junior youth sitting in rows, some in front of the others, all facing a trash bin. We gave each of them a paper which they crumpled into wads. “Today, you represent the American population,” we said, “and you have a chance to make it into the upper class. All you have to do is to throw your paper from where you are sitting and make it into the bin.”

“Hey! Raul is in front of me!” said tall Carlos from the back row. As would be expected, the junior youth in the front row threw their papers in most often, with some lucky exceptions in the back row. We settled the participants down from continuously retrieving their paper wads and re-shooting. “What did you think of this game?” we asked afterwards.

“It was fun,” said tall Carlos. “But it was hard because we were farther away.”

“This was a game about privilege,” we said. “Does anyone know what this word means?”

“It means having a chance,” said little Carlos.

“Yes, but when you use the word ‘privilege,’ it usually means a chance that other’s don’t have,” we continued. “Notice that the only people who commented on the unfairness of the game were those sitting in the back. Those sitting in the front didn’t have to say anything, because they didn’t see anyone in front of them. What are some examples of privileges?” we asked.

“Work and school,” said Jose.

“Right. Is privilege always a bad thing?”

“It’s only good if everyone can have it!” suggested little Carlos.

“Privilege isn’t always bad, because we can do beautiful things with it,” we said. “But as you know, not everyone has privilege, and the world needs help to become a better kind of world. So as young people, we have a job to do, which is to use our privilege in this spirit of excellence, so that we can create a world that is better for people without privilege.” After the game, the junior youth had some snacks baked by one of the adult support team members. While driving me home afterwards, that friend told me that she baked the snacks with the mentality that she was “making them for my kids,” rather than buying something from the store, so that she would know that she was giving the junior youth something that she had put care into. A true example of the spirit of excellence.

A truly beautiful discussion with an enthusiastic, radiant band of young people. These friends give me hope that we can create an excellent world.

‘Abdu’l-Bahá said: “For you I desire spiritual distinction – that is, you must become eminent and distinguished in morals. In the love of God you must become distinguished from all else. You must become distinguished for loving humanity, for unity and accord, for love and justice.”