Today I went to my daughter’s elementary school. We had been notified that she was going to receive a special sportsmanship award at the school’s quarterly assembly. So off we went, proud parents, to celebrate our child’s success, not-so-privately beaming with pride that our enlightened household had produced such a sportsmanshiply young woman.
The assembly was really contagiously inspiring. The kids danced and cheered while the school mascot performed on stage to Michael Jackson’s music (I know, I know, there’s a whole angle to pursue on that musical decision but I was caught up in the entire proud parent routine and overlooked the obvious!). Group after group of students read speeches and performed skits about fair play, honesty, and helping others while their teachers sat off to the side relaying hand signals and mouthing words so the kids would convey their messages just right.
At first my mind wandered to the question, “What would it take to keep this kind of spirit going beyond elementary school? Why does middle school cause such a shift in our children? And why is it that by high school they so often end up hating the world, ditching school, laughing at anyone who dances and cheers, and acting in direct antithesis to this assembly of sportsmanship and community?”
My mental meanderings were interrupted by the high-pitched voice of the enthusiastic principal as she began to read off the names of the winners of the sportsmanship award. Child after child ran to the stage to claim their award while the principal read a short description that in each case sounded something like, “So-and-so is a great young man. He is deserving of this award because he always plays nicely with others. Even when the teacher isn’t looking he respects fellow students, perpetually follows the rules, never takes the easy way out, and displays the school values of hard work, integrity, and fairness.”
About that point my mind began wandering to the question, “Hmm, are those the values we actually reward in this world? Don’t we actually honor the guy who figures out how to win at all costs? The one who keeps all the winnings for himself? The one who reads the rules, understands them better than everyone else, exploits the loopholes, and becomes an American success story?”
And then something interesting happened. A young boy, hearing his name called, sprinted to the stage to collect his sportsmanship award as the principal pointed out his “always gracious nature in winning and in defeat, his kindness in insuring all of the children felt good about their efforts, and his desire to build friendships over winning …” and he was wearing a Richard Sherman Seattle Seahawks jersey!
Now there are probably a bunch of people who would not have reacted the way I did. So let me describe for you the mental orgasm I experienced. It was as if the entire world became clear for me in an instant, similar to all those stories we hear about that moment of enlightenment the great mystical teachers experienced when the stars all align, the birds sing in unison, and sun shines down from the heavens. Okay I’m being a bit dramatic. But seriously? Did anyone else appreciate the totally and complete irony of what had just happened?
For those who don’t watch football, Richard Sherman is the best defensive pass coverage player in the NFL. How do I know this? Well I know because he told me, not me in particular, but the entire football-watching world. He proclaims his greatness quite regularly. But the time to which I’m referring is after he knocked down a pass from the 49ers’ quarterback, thus insuring his team’s victory and advancement to the Super Bowl, and then turned to the 49ers’ receiver he’d been covering and taunted him until he received a penalty for unsportsmanlike conduct (see where I’m going with this?). After the game he gave the following interview to the sideline reporter:
“Well, I’m the best corner in the game.When you try me with a sorry receiver like Crabtree, that’s the result you’re going to get. Don’t you ever talk about me … Crabtree. Don’t you open your mouth about the best. Or I’m-ma shut it for you real quick. L.O.B. (Legion of boom, the nickname of the Seahawks secondary).”
So here’s this cute little boy receiving an award for sportsmanship while wearing a football jersey his dad probably bought him, sporting the name and number of a man who is the poster child for unsportsmanlike conduct.
And that’s the whole issue in one unbelievably concise image.
We set up schools and rules and slogans and awards telling our kids that to be good they must do this and that and the other thing all the while they watch us, our heroes, and our societal leaders doing exactly the opposite and winning. So while they’re in elementary school they play the game because they still believe in our words. They dance and sing and chant our slogans. They proudly wear the student of the week T-shirt, the red ribbon and the gold star. But then they grow up, join the “real world,” look around and realize in their teenage brains – it’s all bullshit. Then they begin to act just like we taught them with our actions. The little boy looks in the mirror, Googles the player on his jersey and comes to school with an attitude and tells the teacher “don’t you open your mouth about the best ….” Then we suspend him from school and, with our mouth’s agape, say, “I don’t understand, it seems like just yesterday when he was such a good little boy winning the sportsmanship award.”
So what’s the point? What can we do differently?
Well let’s start with the entire premise of the assembly – the idea that children ages 5-11 should be motivated to do what we say by making them winners and losers, by anointing some children winners by giving them awards and making others losers by having them sit and watch the kids who did what the teacher said to get those awards. Is this really what we want to show our kids? Isn’t every child at that age a winner? Don’t we believe that our children are all beautifully unique beings who are here to shine their unique light on the world? Or are they only beautiful if they shine what Mrs. Principal-Lady says they should shine?
That little boy should wear that jersey if it represents him. My daughter should follow the rules if they fit her. The children should sing and dance if that matches with their inner being. And they should all, every child should be, exactly, beautifully uniquely as they are — funny, serious, contemplative, energetic, loud, quiet, bold, leader, rebel, inquisitive, conforming, curious, bored – whatever is the true expression of themselves at that moment in their journey.
But instead what do we do? We create our rules: the principal’s rules, mommy’s rules, daddy’s version of success, the president’s version of right and wrong, and then we label our kids by these measuring sticks. Funny becomes class clown; contemplative becomes anti-social; energetic becomes hyperactive; loud becomes disruptive; inquisitive becomes troublemaker; bored becomes depressed; and they all get the message that we don’t love them as they are and that they must do or act or have something more to find love.
Isn’t that what we believe deep inside? Isn’t that why we work ourselves to death? Isn’t it why we poison our bodies? Isn’t that why we can’t sit still, we don’t breathe, and we refuse to stop … because if we do we’ll have to feel those labels that have been placed on us our entire lives? The same labels we now pass on to our children.
We don’t do this maliciously. No, we have good intentions. We hide behind the need for order, for values, for law and order. We rationalize that if everyone were celebrated for being who they are we would have chaos. And in the midst of all of that rationalization we can’t see the chaos right in front of us. Just like the global security apparatus snooping through the world’s email and cell phones and Google searches while failing to see a Malaysian 777 veer off course and disappear into thin air with hundreds of people aboard. We use the “veil of security” to stifle ourselves and others, to trample our rights and suppress our greatness – and this is what we’re teaching our children under the current system.
If we truly want change, if we are sincere in our desire to live in a compassionate and kind world, then that assembly, and in the larger picture our society, has to, it simply must, celebrate us all for being who we are. Instead of giving our children awards of better and worse, winners and losers, we must recognize the uniqueness of each child by allowing them to express their perspective through a skit, a poem, a song, a dance, a sporting event, an essay, a new app, a video … and even by the right to simply say “no thank you, I don’t choose to participate.” And all of us must give our children big hugs, look them squarely in the eye and tell them, “I love you for who you are. Not for what the school says. Not for what I hope you will be. Not for what I fear might happen if you write your own rules. Not for what an outdated system tells us you must do. Not for what the other parents say. I truly love YOU for who YOU are.”
And maybe then, through that loving acceptance and celebration of the true expression of each child, we, the parents and teachers and mentors of the children, would be deserving of the sportsmanship award from them.
Big hugs of love,