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Joanne Jacobs
The Underdog Imperative
Win or lose, kids shouldn’t be shielded from competition.
25 July 2007

Lamarre St. Phard was proud to win the “school champion” certificate in spelling at his Brooklyn middle school. Then the principal, Mendis Brown, told him that he couldn’t compete at the regional bee. “You don’t have the brains,” she said, according to the 13-year-old special-education student. “You’re going to go to the first round and get eliminated and make the school look bad.” In an e-mail to the school librarian, Brown elaborated: “This is too high stakes to send a child that will not be able to cope.”

It’s true that, despite his esteem-boosting certificate, Lamarre had won only in his special-education class, where he’d been placed for behavioral problems. Further, nobody else had showed up for the spell-off, meaning that he competed only against himself. So Brown organized a second bee, this time for the whole school. The winner said that she was too nervous to go to the regional bee; the runner-up, Christian Cartagena, was another special-ed student. Brown decided not to send a student to the regionals.

The lesson that Lamarre and Christian learned was devastating: You’re such losers that you shouldn’t bother trying. But when students compete outside their own schools, or above their skill levels, they learn how they measure up in the world. They learn the value of mistakes and how to bounce back from failure. It’s especially important for low-income, minority students to face such character-building challenges.

In a 2006 article in Wired, Joshua Davis told the wonderful story of a team of Mexican immigrant boys at Carl Hayden Community High School in Phoenix who built a robot submarine to compete in a national contest. The boys’ teachers “entered the club in the expert-level Explorer class instead of the beginner Ranger class,” Davis wrote. “They figured their students would lose anyway, and there was more honor in losing to the college kids in the Explorer division than to the high schoolers in Ranger.” When the boys realized that their sub was leaking just before the contest, they seized on a clever idea for protecting the onboard circuitry: a tampon to absorb the moisture, which they procured at a local supermarket, after asking a greatly amused female shopper for advice on the best brand. At the awards banquet, the team won the design award, the technical writing award, and the grand prize. Students from MIT came in second.

In my recent book, Our School, I wrote about the early years of Downtown College Prep, a San Jose charter high school that tells students—most of them low achievers from Mexican immigrant families—that they can earn four-year college degrees if they’re willing to work hard. Greg Lippman, cofounder of DCP and its first principal, advocates “glorious failure.” Try something that’s too difficult, he says—such as preparing for college if you’re a D student. Fall on your face. Pick yourself up. Do better next time.

The school fielded a Mock Trial team in its first year, even though some members weren’t fluent in English and struggled with reading. They got clobbered in competitions, but they improved. DCP teams built robots to compete in the regional Tech Challenge. After finishing in fourth place for three years in a row, DCP won the contest. Mock Trial and Tech Challenge veterans now attend the University of California at Santa Cruz, Santa Clara University, Cal Poly, and other schools.

These days, young people find themselves deluged with meaningless awards: “student of the week,” say, or “member of the community.” Their schools try to reduce stress by dropping class ranks, honor rolls, spelling bees, science fairs, sports in PE classes, and anything else that might make someone feel like a loser. Eventually, though, everybody has to compete. It’s stressful; it’s life.

Field Day, Ravinia School, 1958: As we kindergartners waited for our race, the teacher passed out green ribbons. Puzzled, and then insulted, we learned that green was for “participation” in a race that we hadn’t even participated in yet. Like most of my classmates, I threw the ribbon away. Running slowly and diagonally, I came in second to last. I coped.

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More by Joanne Jacobs:
Nagging for Success
More . . .
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