One thing we've taught graduates is how to compete.
Perhaps it's un-American to admit this, but as I record final exams and send seniors off to college, competition takes on the aspect of a disease to me. I would be happy not to see a grade book ever again. I don't want to hear about ACT scores or college essays or the common app. I don't even care to watch a sporting event for a while. What I want to do is sit by a lake and read a book.
I'm happy for my students right now, and proud of them. They have become adept at handling competition. A typical day in their lives these past four years might involve a test or two, class discussions, a lunch break in which they have to jostle in line for food, followed by the task of finding a table where they will be welcomed. In the afternoon, they might have more quizzes and assessments, followed by after-school activities in which their skills will be ranked and judged.
This is a lot like life, of course, because most things we do as adults involve competition -- from maneuvering in traffic to winning the account to earning a year-end bonus. This is how our culture works.
Sports is even more of a challenge, because society puts a high value there; consequently, the top high school athletes usually put in more time on their sport than they do on their schoolwork, which makes the lessons learned all the more painful. They can pour their hearts and souls into a sport but ultimately have no control over the outcome. Remember Mary Decker writhing on the infield grass after being knocked out of the race by Zola Budd in the 1984 Olympics? Remember when Drew Pearson wasn't called for offensive interference in the end zone and the Vikings lost their shot at the Super Bowl? Every former jock carries a wound. Personally, I'm not proud to be still bitter about my last high school basketball game, a section final in which I fouled out with four charging calls and one over-the-back.
In sports, as in life, we are at the mercy of forces beyond our control -- goggles that snap, a bad referee, a coaching error, a leg cramp. A flailing foot can take you down, and with it years of training and sacrifice. These are the hardest lessons to learn.
High school students have probably learned more about how to handle disappointment than they have learned how to conjugate Spanish verbs or calculate the area of a parallelogram. In that sense they are prepared for life -- and those objectives weren't even part of our lesson plan!
What I've noticed is that most students learn about perspective and priorities through sports. Look at the Benilde-St. Margaret's hockey team and how love for their injured teammate outshone their accomplishments on the ice. Sometimes you just have to see the bigger picture, and I am confident our young people see that.
This year I worked on an essay with a student, a hockey player, who was writing about his experience working at a camp for the developmentally disabled. He wanted to tell the story of the camper he was in charge of, a little boy who had an affinity for a certain toy. By the end of the week, the two had bonded, and the boy gave my student his toy to remember him by. The point made in the essay was that my student had gone from feeling apprehensive and helpless to feeling useful and important in this child's life. He ended the essay with the image of his trophies pushed aside and this toy in a prominent spot on his shelf.
At graduation, as the awards are bestowed and the students cross the stage wearing whatever ribbons or cords or medals they have earned, we won't focus on how well they did on a test or which of them made all-state. What we teachers inevitably say as our students cross the stage is: "What a nice kid," or "I really like that boy," or "We're going to miss him around here." We say that not because they did well in school or sports but because we have lived with them for the past four years and have come to know their personalities and how they interact with others. What strikes me most at this time of year is the affection we have for our students, an affection that has everything to do with who they are as human beings.
So, graduates: Enjoy the summer. Be proud of yourselves. Take a deep breath. Serve others. Be kind -- because if you are kind, if you serve others, you will always be a winner.
Christine Brunkhorst teaches English at St. Thomas Academy in Mendota Heights.