Seeing the best in life's challenges

When Mistakes Prove to be Fatal

It hurts me to read that title.  But it is that thought which prompts me to write this post.

Yesterday was a very sad day.  We learned that a young man died of an overdose.

Two years ago, as a junior, he started on Varsity as the football team’s quarterback.  I can only tell you what I observed as a parent of a fellow teammate, as I didn’t know him personally.  What I did observe was a poised player, who always seemed to listen to the coach, who seemed to be reliable, who seemed like a “nice kid.”  This was a team that didn’t have a large roster, from a small private school, so even some freshmen started on varsity.  Even though the Independent division is small, it was a big deal for him to be named First Team All-Conference Quarterback as a junior.

Let me be clear:  this post is me grieving.  I know a lot of kids that loved this kid.  You couldn’t watch him play and not grow fond of him.  Of the hundreds of people who have read this post, three have told me I am being disrespectful.  That is certainly not my intent.  To me, the greatest way to pay my respect is to encourage other people to get reflective about how we interact with our kids, especially at school, so that we lower the odds that we will ever have to face another situation like this.  I don’t expect you to agree with me, I just want to make my intent clear.

I remember being surprised the following year, when he wasn’t there for football season.  I don’t know the details personally, so I will just tell you the basic story:  apparently he made some mistakes academically at school, and the school did not let him return the next year.  And apparently there is more to the story, some might say extenuating circumstances, but he could not stay despite that.

I live in an area where there are a lot of private schools.  This is a result of a lot of local history.  These schools are expensive and “exclusive.”  Of course, these schools need to market themselves as special and better, in order to convince parents to send their children.  To survive financially, these schools have to come out on top in the competition for students.

But there are unintended consequences of this competition.  As the schools market themselves as “better and safer,” the other schools become, by default, “worse and dangerous.”  An “us vs. them” mentality results, and assumptions are made.  Kids in private school are told how lucky they are, which means all those other kids must be unlucky.  These schools are grooming the students to be “successful” which means kids at public school must be less likely to be successful.

This brings up what I am sure are difficult situations for a school to handle.  On the one hand, they want to support kids and help them do their best.  On the other hand, they have to maintain their image of quality.  They can’t tolerate a student that crosses too many lines.  If they want to remain competitive, they can’t appear “soft” on the important issues, whether they be unsafe behavior, drugs, cheating, lying, not studying, not performing, or any bad behavior that might prove embarrassing.  How many mistakes are too many?  Standards must be adhered to in order to maintain quality control.

I don’t know anything about his situation, his personal challenges, or how he felt about changing schools.  I do wonder if he felt like a failure, if he felt judged, if he felt embarrassed.  Did he feel doomed to a future of “less than”?

I don’t even know if he meant to take his own life or if the overdose was unintended.

I’m being contemplative, not trying to place blame (which I believe is unproductive).  But hopefully situations like this move our focus to the unintended consequences of our school system and its use of punishment when a student makes mistakes.  Something seems wrong here.  It just seems like we could do better in helping our kids to learn and grow.

Isn’t it worth the effort to step back and think about all this with a fresh set of eyes?

My friend David is a former teacher who has thought a lot about how we school our children, and he uses this analogy to explain how he has come to view the existing way of schooling vs. the new way that we need to work toward.

D: Very well. I will begin at the end of my journey as a school teacher and share with you the conclusion I reached about attempting to fix the system. Here it is:

Attempting to “fix” the school system is the same as attempting to repair a video cassette recorder with the intention of playing a DVD in it.

Q: Oh…… wow…… okay…… can you elaborate on this?

D: Sure. Let’s imagine I own a VCR and have an extensive collection of VC tapes. I receive a gift in the post. The gift is a DVD. I want to watch the DVD but all I have is my VCR. I can stick a CDD (Compatibility Deficit Disorder) label on the DVD… but it still won’t work in my VCR. I can isolate the DVD from the rest of my movie collection, placing it on an empty shelf for a few days… but it still won’t work in my VCR. I can shout and swear at the DVD or throw it against a wall… but it still won’t work in my VCR. There is nothing “wrong” with the DVD. It does not need fixing. It is not broken. Likewise, there is nothing “wrong” with my VCR. It does exactly what it was designed to do: play video cassette tapes. No amount of repair work on this machine will allow me to watch the DVD. The VCR cannot be “fixed” because it does not need fixing. It is not broken. It was never broken. It is simply… obsolete.

Q: Oh wow. That is a powerful metaphor. So you’re saying the school system is not broken… but obsolete?

D: In my experience, yes.

David summarizes his educational philosophy here.  Yes, it is a completely different view and many people might think he is unrealistic.

But we have to start somewhere.  We have to think outside the box.

Our school system is obsolete.  It was designed for kids that no longer exist.  We might wish kids were like they used to be, we might continue to try to fit square pegs in round holes, but it’s just not going to work.   And the damage we are doing along the way is very real.

He was a great kid.  Every kid is a great kid, when we appreciate him or her for the unique individual that they are.  If school is primarily a competition, we are guaranteed to produce losers.  If school is a place to learn, kids need to be able to make mistakes.  And when they do, they need to be able to get help to recover and learn from them.

Mistakes don’t have to be fatal.