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No Room for Failure

I have gone on record, and I’ll stand by that record, saying that any and every form of experiential education is beneficial for anyone’s education. Recently, though, I’m finding reasons beyond my extreme love for Station Maine that lead me to favor rowing as the program of choice.

Society slots kids into certain roles marked with certain expectations, often regardless of personal circumstances such as brain development, home situations, growth rates, or opportunity. Pretty children are always favored, little cute kids are encouraged subtly to remain little and cute for as long as possible, tall kids are expected to play basketball and, because they are bigger than their age mates, expected to have attained a maturity commensurate with their stature. No Child Left Behind, which in a classroom setting often translates into no child permitted to advance, decrees that students must have attained a certain level of proficiency in reading and math at certain age levels regardless of their maturity level or readiness for instruction.

The result of this onslaught is, often, that kids who develop slowly or differently than the proper place on the bell curve, learn very early in their lives that they are inadequate. These kids become the throw-away kids. They expect to fail because they have always failed. They were late bloomers who were the last on their block to learn to crawl, to walk, to potty, to color in the lines, to write their names, or tie their shoes. They are put into school without much expectation even though it is clear to everyone around them that they are not ready.

Some of these kids really are lazy. Welcome to the human condition. Wouldn’t most people rather have something handed to them than have to work for it? In the nature/nurture debate nobody has found a way to teach ambition. How do you teach a kid who is so sanguine that he was late being born that he has to put in that extra effort to succeed? Quite honestly it is always easier to give up than to succeed. And, if you’ve taken enough harassment, failure, teasing, and abuse of various natures in your life, your expectations for yourself are more likely to sink below the mark as well. You learn to expect that, even if you try, you will fail. Since failing kind of sucks, it’s less painful, and less effort, not to make the effort. You’ll never be as athletic as Dennis, as pretty as Heather, as popular as Jonathan. Why even try?

Crew rowing by its very nature sort of shifts that paradigm. Once you have that oar in your hand and we’re away from the dock the only way we’re going to get back to the dock is if you actually pull on the oar. It is scary for kids who expect to fail. Of course they’re going to crab their oar (get it stuck in the water). Of course their oar is going to clunk the other oars. They’re going to get splashed, they’re going to get scared, there is an eleven foot pole in their hands that they are expected to pull, they’re surrounded by water which isn’t necessarily calm, some crazy woman in the back is shouting out things in a foreign language like Hold Water or Make Way and here we are in this tippy thing out in the middle of the harbor and now what do I do?

All of this, from an educator’s point of view, is really good news. Think about this. We are out in the middle of the harbor with no engine and no sails and we want to go home. Now what do we do? There is nobody in that boat who’s so lame as not to be able to see that the only way we’re going to get out of this is if we pull on the oars. So, we pull. All of us. And, wonder of wonders, when you pull an oar for an hour or so it gets easier. Your blade naturally does what it’s designed to do, your stroke falls in the rhythm with the other oars. By the time you get back to the dock you have succeeded in spite of your best intentions to fail and, interestingly enough, succeeding at a new skill feels really, really good.

I still ardently believe in hiking, skiing, organized sports, music, art, carpentry, and just about every other form of “doing”. Anything that gets kids out there doing something real is a winner in my book. But pulling an oar with Station Maine, on the coast of Maine, remains my program of choice. It’s the quickest and most effective way I know to turn out consistant winners. And, because I am human too, I will continue to do it because success feels really good.


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