A recent article I
came across mentioned in passing the horror that some school students used to
face when they performed poorly in P.E. class. In the very old days, this would
have been failing to climb up to the top of a rope, which was a common P.E. test
for people my parents' age.
In my day, P.E. was
less objectively humiliating, but still potentially quite embarrassing. The
most embarrassing thing I remember seeing was when a fellow student of mine had
to swing a softball bat during P.E. class one morning, and it was obvious from
his awkward attempt that he had never done such a thing in his whole life. My
classmates and I -- being children -- snickered to ourselves as he struck out,
although in hindsight it's difficult to understand why. He was a nice kid, and
it's not as if he wasn't physically fit; it's just that his experience and
interests were in rodeo, whereas ours was in more "traditional" or
"ball-related" sports. Big deal.
The article in
question suggested axing P.E. class to save children from the embarrassment
entirely. I think that getting rid of unnecessary school classes is a great
idea, and P.E. strikes me as being one of them. But my opinion has nothing to
do with the author's argument. That argument is one I soundly reject. Children
should not be spared every opportunity for potential embarrassment. Life is
embarrassing, and it's better to grow accustomed to occasional failure than to
be insulated from it.
Indeed, we all take
our turns at the bottom and the top of the social totem pole from time to time.
For every child who embarrasses herself in P.E. class, another proves herself,
startling the other kids with an unexpectedly, and perhaps uncharacteristically,
excellent performance. Those opportunities for success are important for
personal growth, too. Some of us get straight-A's, some of us swing baseball
bats well, some of us can climb ropes, some of us can cook… We all have
strengths and weaknesses. If anything, kids should be exposed to as many
"potentially embarrassing" situations as possible, so that they can
as quickly as possible come to understand that he who places last in one
competition may prove to finish first in the next. You just never know,
especially when you're a kid.
Perhaps I am a bit
biased due to my own experience in school. In the time-and-place where I grew
up, the popular sports were baseball, football, and wrestling. I was terrible
at all of those sports and had no interest in them. Later, I discovered that I was
a decent tennis player, a pretty good basketball player, and an excellent
distance-runner. My successes never made me socially
popular, but I did eventually earn the respect of my classmates, and
that's all that really matters. I transitioned from being
last-to-be-picked-for-everything to being known-for-other-stuff. I never wanted
to be a football star, so it's no skin off my nose that I never was; my being
respected for distance-running is more than I ever expected from my classmates.
I'm satisfied with that.
So, perhaps it is my
bias that leads me to believe that all children should be encouraged to be put
to the test in a variety of ways, to discover where they're high performers. I
suppose some children may indeed be middling at everything.
But being middling doesn't cause ostracism; only being terrible does. I find it
highly unlikely that there are children out there who are good at nothing,
middling at nothing, and bad at everything. Even if so, they might be kind, and
giving them opportunities to demonstrate that kindness will likely help them
overcome feelings of embarrassment in other contexts.
The point is,
everyone has some comparative advantage. We all need opportunities to
demonstrate it, whatever it is. We also all need opportunities to learn
humility, and to know well that we will never be the best at everything, no matter how good we think we are
at… baseball, rope-climbing, tennis, or whatever else it might be.
Anyway, it is our interests that determine all of this. I was
never a good football player -- I will never be a good football player, no
matter how long I live, no matter how hard I practice -- because I never had an
interest in football. I became an excellent distance-runner precisely because I
loved it from the first moment I tried it. I was a bad guitar player until I
developed an interest in good guitar-playing; once I did, my perspective
shifted, and I gradually became a good player. I won't ever be a good French
horn player because I hate the sound of brass and don't want to waste my time
making brass sounds.
I belong to a
fitness group on Facebook, and almost everyone in that group eats very healthy
food. It's not a struggle. It's not even a thing we have to focus on. It's a pleasure. We love to eat healthy, because
healthy food happens to be the food we love to eat. Again, this is not because
we were born with magic healthy powers, it just comes down to what we're
interested in. I'm interested in foods that have a reputation for being
healthy; I'm interested in tasting them, in learning how to cook them, in
learning what they pair well with when prepared as part of a meal. I'm
interested in how they affect my blood sugar and how they fit my nutritional
profile. Clearly, anyone with this pronounced an
interest in healthy food is going to eat healthy. It comes easy to me, and to
the rest of the group.
But, ask us to do
something else that might be good for us, and it's a whole other story. I
admire people who have a knack for home repairs, for example. I'm terrible
around the house, and I wish I weren't. It's not a skill I have. But it's not a
skill that I can't have. It's not a
skill I failed to be born with. It's
just something I don't have a strong interest in. Without that interest driving
me, I'll always be at the bottom of the totem pole. Instead, I run fast and
To bring this
discussion full circle, here's a modest proposition. Maybe if we as individuals
shifted our perspective away from "better-versus-worse" to
"more-interested-versus-less," we'd have a more useful framework for
understanding social situations. We'll never eliminate childhood embarrassment,
nor should we ever. But we might help children better-understand their
emotions, and we might help them concentrate on their strengths rather than
their weaknesses. That would make P.E. class go more smoothly, even if we
didn't eliminate it; and it might make us happier and better-adjusted adults,