We are at a crossroads in thought. In practice, I think we are still far behind. But in thought, in the realm of contemplation I guarantee you we are at a virtual crossroads. We are standing at the intersection of commitment and competition. Imagine two street signs, each one pointing in a different direction. There we are. Look at it. Ask yourself which road you are inclined to take. Know that you must choose one, you can’t have both. Pretend for a moment that they are one hundred percent exclusive. What comes to mind?
Every day I run four miles I celebrate my commitment to running; to the balance of my mind, body & spirit. Years ago, in high school when I ran track, I was labeled a sprinter. I envied the long distance runners—such longevity, stamina. Much later I realized that those students had learned discipline and stamina from somewhere. Someone had given them the gift of coaching, the gift of encouragement, the gift of time and space to build muscle, form and stamina. All of this together nurtured a commitment to running.
As I expanded my academic understanding of ‘access’ and the conditions necessary to achieve, I realized that those prep school students I admired had always had access to a track or a quiet path in the country or safe streets. They also had strong running shoes that could withstand the test of time, sweat pants that fit properly, a sports bra, even.
When I first started running I thought about my failures in the past— the cramp in my side, the fatal track meet I blogged about a few years back. I felt completely inadequate when I sized myself up next to those ‘others,’ not knowing that their experiences had well prepared them while I was just starting, getting my first glimpse into the real world of athletics. Remember that scene in the movie Spanglish, where the beautiful Paz Vega is trying to outrun her boss, played by Téa Leoni and she just can’t catch up? I watch that scene and I’m reminded of all that I’m trying to explain here.
Overtime and many, many years later, I have worked hard to build my running skills. I decided to become my own coach and give myself the encouragement I needed to develop form, muscle and stamina. I spent a little more on running shoes and found a track that I could safely practice. Even so, I still shy away from teams, track groups and marathons because I’m not interested in competition or comparing myself with others. Perhaps this reticence to compete stems from my social & emotional development as a teenager when the competition and comparison with others thwarted my confidence, rather than motivated me.
As an educator, I’ve watched the students who come from disadvantaged, inner city backgrounds shrivel in their seats when faced with a test. No matter what they learned—when asked to turn their desks forward for a quiz or a test, we’d lose them. Their confidence evaporates. Some act loud and mean and pretend they’re not scared and others simply slump over and sleep— either way, I’ve noticed it over and over again. Many children are intimidated with testing. During this first year notorious Common Core state exams, I observed many students give up on page three. Granted, the tests were seriously over reaching and so complex that teachers had difficulty figuring out the answers—but there was that something else I saw, that thing I’m thinking we should really start paying attention to. Children were not even trying. There was no engagement and motivation.
Is it possible that competition kills engagement and motivation, especially for children who come from disadvantaged backgrounds who, for the most part have had very limited access to activities that would build stamina, endurance and most importantly confidence? Human beings must learn the ebb and flow of achievement. It is not something we are born with. And the learning of this skill does not happen overnight nor does it happen evenly over time. I’d venture to say that it’s developmentally relative and socially conditioned. Achievement requires that a student recognize the social and emotional states within oneself that are linked to failure and success and to have the skills needed to pace and manage one’s cognitive processes accordingly.
What is commitment?
Let’s say we decide that we should choose commitment, over competition in our schools. That education is not about Racing to the Top or scoring well on a test. Instead, education is about developing commitment to learning. Then we are choosing to teach children not to give up, no matter what, to stay focused on a goal, to develop, to progress.
Commitment is an internal driver, not an external driver. It brings you back to your own purpose, your own fidelity to an intrinsic cause. Commitment is regardless of what others are doing, it is a promise to oneself that you will stay the course. Most importantly, the outcome in commitment is unknown. Let me say that again.
The outcome in commitment is unknown.
When a person says, “I am committed” it speaks volumes.
You can depend on a committed person to grow, to participate, to engage, to do, to be.
Competition has a beginning and an end.
Commitment stays infinitely. Competition is a race, linear. Commitment is a ring, circular.
As I read the news on the outcomes of the Common Core, I contemplate how hundreds of schools across the country must feel facing this ‘another failure,’ not to mention the thousands of children who were set up to fail–many dealing with egregious conditions at home and at school.
Yes, I think that we are at a crossroads.
I don’t want my children to Race to the Top or to be a Child Left Behind. I don’t want to make those things a mission in our life because it’s the most empty of missions. I don’t want my son or daughter to achieve or not to achieve because there’s some imaginary “gap,” which pits him and her against another ethnicity or race, a demographic number, a statistic, a social construct designed to divide. I want them to commit to the act of learning for the joy of it. I want them to learn the joy of discipline, longevity and long distance running. I want them to learn to be their own coaches and to run with the sun and the trees blowing. I want them to want to learn for the sake of learning.
Tell me. Are we at a crossroads?