A Word for the Wise

By Phineas J. Stone

Anyone who stays alive long enough sees trends circle and circulate through the culture.

So many things that were “out” or forgotten suddenly have a way of popping up again – such as when a celebrity is suddenly photographed in a suit coat you own, but were told never to wear because it was so woefully behind the times.

There are times I think these edgy fashionable folks are raiding my closet.

Along those same lines, I have been encouraged to see the tradition of Spelling Bees returning to the schools. Spelling Bees are so traditional that one would expect a Norman Rockwell painting of the scene (and maybe there is one). They are along the same lines in school culture as American flags, the Pledge of Allegiance, physical education class and beef fritters (whatever those were) for school lunch.

I recently participated in a number of Spelling Bees in and around the neighborhoods, being called in as a judge. It was hard work, but not because it was difficult so much to check the words, but because kids take things so hard these days. As I sat in my judges seat for the “new” competitions, I realized that at some point winning and losing had fallen out of fashion.

It seems we got rid of Spelling Bees and competitive sports games for kids in the recent past because in such things someone had to win and someone had to lose. Adults at the time, I believe, didn’t want to have to deal with a sobbing child who was learning how to lose. They also didn’t want to pump up a child who routinely excelled and was learning how to win. The idea was to make everyone equal so that no one ever got disappointed and no one ever found victory.

It’s not realistic, obviously.

And I think it was just a cop-out for teachers, parents and adults in general to be able to opt out of teaching children tough lessons.

In the recent Spelling Bees I oversaw, there were a lot of tears. When some kids missed their words, ending their competition, they wept. Some cried bitterly, having hoped that they would take home a trophy, and realizing those hopes were dashed.

Some of the adults in the room anguished.

One remarked to me that they felt maybe this wasn’t the best thing for the kids.

I, for one, was glad to see the kids anguishing over the loss, and then being taught how to deal with it by teachers or parents in the audience. By the time the contest was over, most of the kids had recovered, working through the feeling of disappointment and focused on the idea that they would work harder and, perhaps, do better next time.

It was the bitter pill of winning and losing and we need more kids to understand and deal with the hard-edges of life. Those hard edges are sharp, and if we aren’t taught how to smooth them over at a young age, we become unable to cope at a later age.

It’s this simple. Someone who doesn’t know how to win and lose is woefully unprepared for the world – and we have a generation of kids and young people right now in just that conundrum (if one hasn’t yet noticed).

I have vivid memories of losing; perhaps even more so than winning.

And at the conclusion of one of the Bees recently, such a scene played out between the winner and the runner-up. The young man who had won was rejoicing at the front of the stage with his trophy, very appropriately, after prevailing. His parents, teachers and classmates were cheering for him.

He was all smiles.

Sitting in a chair at the back of the stage was the runner-up, who was sobbing bitterly as she dealt with the idea that her Spelling Bee journey was over. The winner – a fifth grader, mind you – turned around in his jubilation and saw his classmate crying. He paused from his victory lap, and went back to her, grabbed her hand and led her up to the front. There, he hugged her and gave her the 2nd place trophy.

Together, they raised their hands in victory – a hard fought victory where there was a winner and a loser and it was done gracefully and with compassion.

Tears nearly came to my eyes.

I’m glad winning and losing are back in vogue.

 

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