And so it begins, Z’s American High School experience.
First lesson: Winning is Everything. And if you’re not good enough to win, you can always fetch water.
So, she tried and failed to make the volleyball team. No big deal. She’d only arrived from Germany roughly 48 hours before the tryouts. I’m sure that had nothing to do with the time change of flying halfway around the world, her first trip of that kind, ever. But I’m being too soft, too liberal, or maybe it’s too progressive. I don’t really know. Either way, this is high school sports, after all. No one said she was ugly or stupid. She just didn’t exhibit the whatever-it-takes to make the team (as a consolation, she was offered the role of manager, delivered via email, second only to texting as the most insensitive and cowardly way to deliver bad news).
Furthermore, if you were to read the school’s athletic handbook you would see that the program’s focus is to complement the academic development of well-rounded students by helping to develop character, discipline, team work, and other life skills that are benefit to the student/athlete. Complement. Not build. This is not Habitat for Humanity. Our high schools are not constructing gyms and stadiums for the poor, the homeless, the un-gifted.
Athletics is not about charity, it’s about winning. Or if not winning, by God, it’s about fielding the best possible chance to win. An objective shaped by someone’s opinion. Over the course of a two-day, four-hour evaluation. With little regard for character, discipline, team work, and any other life skill they might achieve playing against their peers. No, sir, it comes down to this one characteristic: Can you crush them?
Forget the fact that there are would-be student athletes all over the world battling various personal setbacks, hardships, and challenges to even muster the nerve or find the wherewithal to attend tryouts, much less have a chance to compete. These young heroes are having to fight poverty, chronic illness, societal and self-doubt, and a host of other formidable, never-ending obstacles the sports world would rather not think existed. To be sure, over-coming adversity doesn’t fit evenly into an athletic mission statement. It doesn’t cry out: We’re number one.
But kids facing down difficulty or, as in the case of Z, pursuing a dream despite the challenges, are, if anything, exactly the kind of competitors who belong on a team. The kind that believe that the will to go out everyday of their lives and do their very best is much more important than being crowned champion. These are kids who know the difference between winning and playing to win. I’d take a squad-full of that attitude over talent any day, hands-down.
And so here we are, with Z not even one week in this country, feeling firsthand the spirited, albeit blunt, competitive drive that has on the one hand made this country strong (and at one time, well respected), but on the other seeks to separate our young people into the haves and have-nots. That sounds to me like the exact opposite of character development.
I know, too, I don’t have the answer. Not everyone can be on a team, I get that. But then again not everyone wants to. Those who do, should. Period, end of discussion. To offer anything less is saying to our future generations and the world at large, this is the true American experience: to be better than everyone else at everything everywhere.
As we’re seeing both inside and outside these proud, imperfect borders, that kind of thinking is simply unsustainable. It is time we think of character, discipline, and team work as something more than just a feel-good phrase in a handbook. It’s time they become something we practice.