What part of this am I missing?
Somebody explain to me how competition is useful in grammar school. I don’t get it. Or maybe I’m just too emotional or protective. I don’t know.
We went to my daughter’s “science fair” last night. All the kids had displays of their science projects, which they had worked on for weeks. They were all very proud, parading their parents around to all the boards, showing them whose was whose, especially highlighting their own, of course. My daughter was proud of her work and loving that we were at her school. It was fun. Well it was fun until the principal informed us that they would be “announcing the science fair winners” in a few minutes.
Wait. What? Why?
Why do we need ‘winners?’ Why does it have to be a competition? How do you judge the independent efforts of a 3rd grader? How do you judge learning and exploration? And more importantly, why would you place them in a competition they are not emotionally ready to handle? Are these competitions for the child or are they for the over-engaged parents?
And if you must have a competition in 3rd grade, at least give the kid a CHOICE of whether or not she participates. This was a mandatory school project –that’s getting judged? So wrong on so many damn levels.
After seeing the other science projects, with their super complex presentations and perfectly aligned poster boards and color-coordinated everything and other obvious contributions by parents, I felt like saying to Ava “check it out. You aren’t going to win, little one. You aren’t going to win because daddy and I have the strange and radical opinion that kids should do their own work, without help or input of parents beyond subtle suggestions and hints, when the kid is stuck and explicitly asks for it. Consequently, your project looks like it was done by a 9-year-old.”
So the principal walks to the front of the room and all the kids with their hopeful, bright eyes and the parents – some looking intent and serious, others, like us, looking like we’re about to vomit – and she announces “first, second and third place” winners. I glance at Ava.
Her eyes burn red. She’s trying not to cry.
Half the room is trying not to cry.
And I run to her, torn as usual: wanting to cradle her but wanting her to learn that the world is a rough messed up place. Wanting her to fight her own battles, wanting to beat the principal and the fucktard PTA mom judges to listless, bloody pulps. So I say “Ah, baby. Let’s talk about it in the car,” hoping the walk across the parking lot will shed some light on it…give me the right words to say…give me just the thing to make her feel okay, to teach her the perfect lesson for this particular experience and make it all okay.
But I got nothin’.
As usual I flounder and struggle and try to explain that it doesn’t mean her project wasn’t great. It only means that a few people thought it wasn’t as great as the others…and it doesn’t matter what they think and who the hell are they to judge and they have their own motives, etc. etc. But she’s not an idiot. What’s the take away for her? What’s the ultimate message? Mine was not as good as the others. Mine didn’t win.
Period. End of story.
My project was not as good.
I am not as good.
And the pride she felt a few moments earlier vanished. And suddenly hers was second-rate and she was silly to hold our hands and parade us around. Because it wasn’t very good. It wasn’t a winner. The important people said so. There’s no ribbon on mine. Therefore, I lose.
Please somebody tell me how that’s helpful?
Because even if she were to win, what would she have then? An over-inflated sense of ego and superiority derived from an arbitrary judgment of irrelevant individuals. A feeling of success because other people approved of her work. Why not value the process? The journey. The fact that she did this work by herself and she did a good job. And that is enough in itself.
There is a place for competition. When a person is ready to compete. When a person is emotionally prepared to handle the loss. When a person can separate herself from the outcome, knowing a competition doesn’t define her value as a person.
But not now. Not in 3rd grade. Not when it’s all wrapped up in one.
What did I ultimately say?
“Ava, remember that Townes Van Zandt song… ‘Don’t let the bastards get you down?’ Well, this is exactly what he was talking about.”
Then I called my mom and told her about the bastards, and tried not to let them get me down either.