I announced here yesterday that I was going to post for a few days about good writers who wrote sucky books and poems--and I will commence that tomorrow.
But then I discovered that this post will be the 300th since I started this ?adventure? last January. Talk about Pandora's box! What torments I have loosed--not upon the world (so much) but on me! (Every day I sit here, imprisoned by my own obsession with routine!) Anyway, something happened this past weekend that I wanted to write about.
My younger grandson, Carson (3), is in a Spider-Man phase. Underneath his outside shirt he wears--always--a Spider-Man shirt, and--this is important--he always shows it to us when we see him. Just to reassure us, I guess. A tacit promise of protection should we be assailed by something or someone? A statement to his grandparents: There's more to me than you think!
As soon as he started doing it, I was reminded of his father's similar obsession at a similar time. When our son Steve (born in July 1972) was a wee lad, there were as yet no big-budget Spidey films. There was that CBS-TV series, The Amazing Spider-Man (1977-1979), but it was the comic books that Steve read and adored. And that occasioned the essay below, a piece I published in that amazing mass-circulation magazine The Ohio Middle School Journal in December 1984. And it's mere coincidence, I assure you, that my dear friend Jerry Brodsky was the editor of that journal. Just coincidence--really.
Anyway, son Steve's obsession with Spider-Man--and his father's slow-thinking--occasioned the piece ...
ON LEARNING YOU'RE NOT SPIDER MAN
Ohio Middle School Journal, December 1984
When my son was six and learned he would never be Spider Man, he cried. His sad insight came one day when he looked up from his tattered comic and asked: "Daddy, when am I going to my webshooters?"
As usual, my tongue responded more quickly than my brain. "Son, there aren't really web-shooters. There couldn't be. For there's not really a Spider Man, you see. It's all ... " But then I noticed his tears, and my words froze in my throat. I made a clumsy attempt to recover. "I mean, he lives in comic books and ... "
Too late. Damage done.
"No Spider Man?" he sobbed. "But when I get big ... won't I ... ?" He trailed off, his vision of his future considerably clouded by his clod of a father. And the rest of the day I went around feeling pretty lousy.
As I reflect on that experience now, however, I realize that my thoughtless destruction of one of his most cherished hopes only partially explains my lingering depression that day; I realize now that I felt lousy also because his disappointment and disillusionment so much resembled my own. His tears reminded me once again that life for most of us is discovering, over and over again, that we're never going to be Spider Man—that we're not Prince Hamlet, nor were meant to be. And as an educator, I am aware that such discoveries often begin in the middle school years where youngsters, often for the first time, hear that dreadful shattering sound of reality colliding with dream.
* * *
There was a time when you could not attend a teachers’ meeting of any kind without hearing about an idea called "schools without failure." William Glasser and his disciples urged us all to eliminate the notion of "failure" from schools, to find ways for all kids to succeed, to abandon our heavily competitive methods of grading and evaluating, to abolish systems of labeling that demeaned youngsters and saddled them with defeatist self-concepts. And to a great extent their efforts were salutary for the public schools, if for no other reason than
that many educators became increasingly sensitive about the debilitating effects of failure on children.
As a result of our new insights about failure, excesses were corrected; imbalances were adjusted; and, generally, the quality of life in many schools was significantly improved. At my own school, we became creative
and considerate in our efforts to prevent kids from thinking of themselves as failures: we instituted no-cut policies in athletics (and instituted "fifth quarters" for players who did not get in the "real" game); we eliminated student council elections and invited anyone interested to join; we found parts for everyone in school plays; we had as many as 100 girls involved in cheerleading.
However, our justifiable pride in such accomplishments ought to be tempered by reality's cold water: we educators may abolish failing from our schools, but we will never eliminate failure.
ITEM: Last spring I asked my eighth graders to write about what they considered the best and the worst features of their final year in middle school. One boy wrote that he had been very disappointed. All his life he had wanted to be an athlete—a great athlete—yet he had spent much of the basketball season sitting on the bench watching his more talented classmates play. "I found out this year," he said, "that basketball isn't my game." I felt terrible when I read that boy's composition, not so much because he had failed, but because, institutionally, we had been telling him he wouldn't. I began to realize that we could never expel failure from schools, and I began to believe that we shouldn't try to. Youngsters fail all the time—i.e., they do not achieve their own goals; they realize, perhaps, that they never will—and the extent to which we neglect to help them cope with these failures is one measure of our own inadequacies as educators.
* * *
Kids have always known they were failing; we have never really fooled them. They know when they don't "get" their math. Or understand their social studies. They know what sort of athletes play the fifth quarters; they know their part in the school play is invented rather than required. No, we never really eliminated failure; we just stopped helping kids deal with it. And when we "eliminated" failure, we corroded the concept of success. I must hasten to note here that I am in no way advocating a return to the old "sink-or-swim" pedagogy (the theory that we must hurl everyone out in the middle of the river—none near the shore—and then watch placidly—and self-righteously—while many struggle or even drown—hey, we gotta have standards, right?). Nor am I suggesting that we dust off the F and dispense it freely (and gleefully).
What I am suggesting is that in this age of calls for "excellence," we must not forget that failure is a natural and frequent consequence of attempting to meet high standards; I am suggesting that we re-assume an old responsibility—namely, to help kids cope. We need to prepare our kids for failure, not protect them from it. Kids will always fall down, so we need to provide soft places to land. We don't need schools without failure; we need schools where failure is okay.
And there is no better place to begin than in the middle schools. We all agree that middle schools ought to provide opportunities for "exploration" and "self-discovery." But what do we do for the kid who wipes clean the mirror of self-discovery, only to gaze upon an image that greatly disappoints—or even frightens—him?
One solution—perhaps an obvious one—is to begin to cultivate two attitudes: ( 1) there is virtue in trying, and (2) there can be major satisfaction in minor accomplishments.
In his short story, "The No-Talent Kid," Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. writes of just such attitudes. A teen-age boy with no musical talent whatsoever is consumed by a desire to play in his high school's award-winning marching band. For a couple of years he languishes in the "C" band, the group for beginners and hopelessly unmusical upperclassmen, constantly cajoling the director to let him squeak on his clarinet in the "A" band. Finally, in desperation, he buys an enormous bass drum (long coveted by the impecunious band director) and attempts bribery: let me play this drum, he says, and the band can have it.
The director finally strikes a bargain with the boy. He can pull the cart which holds the drum. Elated, the boy endeavors to become the best drum-puller in the best band in the state.
Kids—and adults—need to learn and accept that not many of us will ever play first-chair clarinet in an "A" band, or appear on The Tonight Show, or hit the Lottery, or place our footprints in a Hollywood sidewalk ... or become Spider Man. But we need not grieve because our fire does not burn so spectacularly as we once had hoped. Instead, we can delight in the discovery that even a little flame can give a lovely glow.