12/13/2012 05:45 EST | Updated 02/12/2013 05:12 EST

What Does Merit Mean Nowadays Anyway?


If the world were a perfect place, we'd all be fully recognized, rewarded and appreciated for our hard work -- and talent and perseverance would be the only way to get ahead. But in our fast-track world, does merit always mean success? That's what the MeriTALKcracy initiative is all about. Inspired by the motto on the Upper Canada College school crest -- Palmam qui meruit ferat (let he who merited the palm bear it) -- we ask, who deserves it and how has a commitment to earning it shaped one's life? In a series reflecting on this question of merit, prominent UCC alumnae weigh in. We'd like to hear your thoughts too!

"Let he who merited the palm bear it" (Palmam qui meruit ferat). My classmates and I all remember our Upper Canada College high school motto or, at the very least, remember seeing it in Laidlaw Hall, yet we all interpret it in different ways.

One challenge with merit is that, in its modern vernacular, it can serve confusion. "Everybody has a plan until they get punched in the face," ex-pugilist Mike Tyson once said. Statistically, chance explains the majority of all good fortune (yes, hard work adds to the general equation), as proven by the work of Nobel Laureates and decision researchers Daniel Kahneman and the late Amos Tversky. For me, the UCC motto was both a burden and an instigation to chase excellence, no matter the cost. The second bit stood me well, but the burden persisted. I never could understand why "bad things happen to good people."

We should all know and remember this. Billions go to bed hungry each night. Billions live on less than a few dollars a day. What chance is there for merit without means? And what if, through no fault of your own, fate punches you in the face one day? That punch can, and usually does, come to everyone.

While I sat in Weston Hall at curriculum night for new Senior Kindergarten parents in my son's class three years ago, I revisited these recurring thoughts. And then I met by chance Adam de Pencier, who had taught Latin and Greek at the College following the end of the tenure of the ever-great Terence Bredin (under whom I studied Latin in grades 9-12). "Into the valley of Death Rode the six hundred..." I remember Mr. Bredin imploring us all to recognize the beauty in this sad but exquisite line by Lord Alfred Tennyson. There were 600 odd students in the Upper School then. I identified with the 600. Were we all, then, similarly facing doom?

I loved Latin, and, though I have no empiricism to support this gut feeling, feel that it has helped me more than all subjects I ever took in all my studies. A fellow UCC grad, Eric Meerkamper '87, told me we often confuse our favourite subjects with favourite teachers. In my case, Mr. Bredin was my favourite. To most he was the Pit Bull bodyguard (to me he was a wise uncle of sorts), always on hall duty to ensure we were all properly dressed prior to entering the doors to the pews of daily assembly. One day my father, a neuroscientist, lent me an obscure journal article on neck constriction resulting from tight neckties. I showed it to Mr. Bredin. Mr. Bredin, ever one for novel excuses, allowed me exceptionalism, i.e., regular special entry to morning assembly without my top tie bottom affixed. Lovers of Latin are rebellious sorts (we just don't appear thus).

Trouble was, I wasn't as expert in Latin as much as I enjoyed it. Twenty-four years after I graduated from UCC ('88), Adam (now a UCC dad), over coffee, taught me what I never knew. He said it more elegantly, but it boiled down to: "Neil, the motto's in the subjunctive case you numbskull!" Huh? UCC had, indeed, taught me what "subjunctive" meant but I'd forgotten this. It is not in the imperative (as a command) but, in fact, in the subjunctive, as in, "Would that he who....." (or, 'if only he who....') deserves it has a chance at the greatness of life." That could be a person without shelter, a sister, or a nameless, limbless soldier in a war.