Being there

I was going to write about a political topic this morning, after my 6 a.m. (Central Daylight Time) post, as is typical for this blog on days that don’t start with F or S.

That 6 a.m. post — about the 99th anniversary of the WIAA state basketball tournament and the Wisconsin State Journal’s excellent section thereupon — got me thinking about state specifically and school more generally. (Which may be ironic since the schools at state today and Friday probably won’t have school today and Friday.)

The state basketball tournament, as I’ve written here before, was a big deal for our school, including its juniors. I didn’t play on the team (no athletic team that was worth anything would have me, for good reason), but I played in The Band (which was central to my getting into the UW Marching Band), which accompanied the team to state. That was also a good semester to be the high school newspaper’s sports editor.

Those were my two biggest high school involvements. La Follette went to state twice while I was there, but the band that went to state my freshman year didn’t have freshmen in it. I went to a high school of 2,000 students (which now is about 20 percent smaller in enrollment), and I had about 500 people in my class, which is as big as the local high school — all four of its classes. Things like band and the newspaper not only make the high school smaller; they also bring you in contact with those older and younger than yourself. (Girlfriends? I resemble that remark!) Certainly no workplace has employees all of the same age.

You may roll your eyes, sigh and scoff at a suggestion, to the point of storming out and slamming the door, that high school and its assorted hormone- or feeling-driven dramas represent so-called “real life” at all. But unless you somehow find a line of work that includes neither coworkers, bosses nor customers, and you avoid marriage, church, or contact with anyone else, you have to learn how to deal with and work with other people, whether they’re like you or especially if they’re not like you.

None of our kids are in high school yet. They’ve been involved, though — basketball, swimming and baseball, plus school musical groups and school plays and musicals, and a community musical, “Fiddler on the Roof.”

Yesterday morning I went to a concert of fifth-grade musicians, a recruitment tool aimed at future fifth-graders.  The principal noted the importance of getting involved in school beyond schoolwork.

That may seem ironic coming from a principal, given that the ramifications of failure to do schoolwork often include being left out of those involvements, particularly athletics. Those outside-the-three-Rs involvements, though, arguably more closely parallel the post-education world than most classrooms (at least those without project-based work) do. He didn’t say this, but I will: Participants in those activities remember more of those activities than anything they do in the classroom.

(Of course, music is an academic subject. As the Children’s Music Workshop puts it, “In music, a mistake is a mistake; the instrument is in tune or not, the notes are well played or not, the entrance is made or not.” In addition to the academic benefits, music builds self-esteem not by dubious self-psychology, but by accomplishment and public performance.)

What do (or should) you learn on a basketball team, or in the band, or in the school play, or in some other activity that gets a page or two in the yearbook? You learn hard work as its own virtue, not just to get a grade. (In most lines of work, your reward for your work is a regularly arriving paycheck; sometimes it’s getting more responsibility or more money, but not always. In some lines of work, the only feedback you get is negative feedback.)

You learn about being something bigger than yourself, and being one part of that thing bigger than yourself. You learn that others may get bigger roles than you, deservedly (in your opinion) or not — a starting spot on the team, a starring role, first chair in your musical section, or a title. You eventually may get that bigger role, or not, and you learn how to deal with disappointment, or the increased responsibility of a bigger part.

Leadership is really not something you learn in a classroom before college. (Some people never learn leadership anywhere, which is OK for non-leaders, but not for those who are supposed to lead.) At some point members of a team, athletic or not, discover that a team is only as strong as its weakest members. A publication may have great writers and editors, but without good people to sell advertising and subscriptions, few people will get to read their work. Conversely, good sales people won’t give their clients much reason to advertise if the editorial content is poor. Everybody has to contribute, including those whose contributions aren’t seen or noticed by the public.

One valuable lesson of a sports season or another activity that produces more than one something (for instance, a school newspaper) is that you’re only as good as the last thing you did. Even if you did well in one game, that doesn’t mean you’ll do well in the next game. Conversely, you also learn that what’s important is not what you just did, it’s what you do next.

Few people who watched the 1982 WIAA Class A boys basketball championship probably realized at the time that Madison La Follette’s Rick Olson had, by his standards, a subpar game for about 29 minutes, shooting just 6 of 21 from the field. Olson got to 24 points by hitting his last four shots, followed by the biggest assist of his life, to teammate Scott Hogan for the game-winning basket with 30 seconds left. To use a pro example, no one remembers, in the 1981 NFC championship  game between San Francisco and Dallas, the 49ers’ six turnovers, including three Joe Montana interceptions. They remember Montana’s last pass, to Dwight Clark.

Education isn’t limited to a classroom.


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