It might be simple enough to blame the Olympics. We've got a whole school full of kids who want to go for the gold. It is this spirit of competition that we celebrate every four years, or every two years in an alternating summer to winter fashion. Everywhere I look, I see the results and they are the first thing that is emphasized is the medal count. There is a tally of just how many gold, silver and bronze medals each country has won, while reporters from this country are quick to point out just how many more the United States has compared to other countries. Russia loses out, since the breakup of the Soviet Union. Germany does better since unification. It makes sense, really.
But is winning what it's all about? "Faster, Higher, Stronger" is the credo of the games since 1894. "Let me win, but if I can not win, let me be brave in the attempt," reads the motto of the Special Olympics. Brave in the attempt. I like that. It's the part that I spend most of my time with on Tuesdays when I wear my PE whistle. I work hard to come up with cooperative games for each grade level: activities that avoid the distinction of winners and losers, but there is a constant challenge to steer kids away from faster, higher, stronger. Perhaps it is because I spent so much time standing against the wall, waiting to be the last one picked. I don't want anyone to be last if I can help it.
That's not how kids are wired, however. They have heightened awareness of the smallest differences. "More" and "less" is a huge deal for elementary students. Ultimately it all comes down to a self-esteem issue. Everybody wants to have a moment of being special. Nowhere is that more apparent than at the start of every day when all the classes line up on the yard. A lot of kids will leave their jackets or backpacks as place holders while they go off to pursue fun before the bell rings, but when that moment comes, there is a mad dash. In all that pushing and shoving, there is almost always at least one heart broken. "But I was first," comes the plaintive whine.
I have tried to explain that there has never been a time when a student has not been allowed to enter the classroom if they were second or third in line. There would be a desk waiting. I have even suggested that there is a certain nobility in allowing someone else to get into line ahead of you. These are not words that get much play. After any given dissertation, I will undoubtedly be met with the refrain, "But I was first."
And so it goes. Consequently, I have changed my approach. I drift to the end of the line, where I make a big deal about the person I find there. "Thank you for letting all these other kids in ahead of you. Aren't you the considerate one?" Mostly what I get are blank stares, but I expect that over time, I expect I will eventually have kids racing to the end of the line, but I'm looking forward to hearing it: "But I was last!" At least let them be brave in the attempt.