Posted by Debra Solomon Baker on July 20, 2008
I have been thinking about the race that I ran this morning. The 8K. Although I have been a runner, off and on, for more than a decade, one of my Summer of ’08 goals has been to participate in my first-ever organized running event.
There’s deep irony about my whole passion for running. My most vivid school-related memories involve being the last one trudging around the track for the Presidential Fitness tests in Physical Education. The last one. Here comes little Debby, brown eyes pressed to the pavement, cheeks purple, hoping that none of the speedy girls and boys would notice me, knowing, of course, that they all did. Year after year, I was the skinny girl with the long legs who moved like the tortoise, an embarrassment to the President, to my PE teachers, to myself. To me, the Presidential initiative seemed like nothing more than an exercise in humiliation.
In some ways, I guess, we never grow up. Last night, little Debby, now Debra, 40 years old, mother of two, still skinny with long legs, lay awake in her bed worrying about being the last one to finish the 8K. No kidding. I considered all of the reasons why the whole run-in-a-race idea was misguided, even silly. I even had the Getting Lost in a Strange Place nightmare that has plagued me, off and on, since childhood. I completely psyched myself out.
Had I not already paid the fee for the race, when my alarm rang early this morning, I would have yanked the covers back over my head. No doubt. But, money is money and goals are goals, so I lifted myself out of bed, pulled on running clothes and a baseball cap, safety pinned the #4 to my chest, and off I went. To the 8K.
I emerged from my minivan and entered the race scene insecurely, timidly glancing around. Where should I stand? What stretches were other runners doing? Did I have my number pinned in the right place? I took cues from those more experienced, those with proven success. They were surprisingly easy to pick out of the crowd, as they sported t-shirts from previous races, even from marathons, to me, all symbols of their status.
The race began, and the herd quickly separated. Many runners swished past me, as I struggled to maintain a steady pace without breaking down in the 85 degree morning heat. I think about how many times (answer: three) I looked behind me, determined that, this time, I would not be the purple-faced caboose.
I did not have a great run. I fatigued early and never felt the sense of peace and clearheadedness that I often feel when I run. And although I sought distraction–my I-pod, the scenery, daydreams–my focus remained almost exclusively on how I was faring and whether or not I would finish without the disgrace (in my own mind, a disgrace) of having to walk.
As I finally crossed the finish line, a crowd of strangers, all faster than I, cheered and screamed, “Way to go.” There were treats waiting for me–peaches, grapes, and precious Gatorade, oh yes, for my throat that had never been dryer.
After the race, friends celebrated with me. Nobody asked, “How fast did you go?” but rather, “Did you have a good time? Was it fun? Would you do it again?” My sister, over the phone from Miami, said, “I’m proud of you.”
* * *
In many ways, our students are like this herd of runners; some move with confidence with those “t shirts” emblazoned with messages of success, while others timidly search for cues, trying still, even in eighth grade, to know how to play the school game, or, at least, how to, please god, just avoid total embarrassment.
What is it really like to be this struggling student in our classrooms? To be someone who cannot read well, or solve a simple equation, or for whom a writing assignment is a ghastly chore? What is it like to be someone who feels so darn fatigued, yet continues to plow on, despite little or no history of success? Or to be someone who has decided that crawling back under those covers is truly the way to go?
How well do we, year after year, teach these students who struggle to succeed? Do we give them a clear map of the race course, assuring them that if they get lost, we will be there to help steer them back? And then, are we really there if and when they do get lost? Or do we make excuses for them, for us?
Do we help them set realistic goals, and a pace that is reasonable, just for them? Or do we require them to keep pace with everyone else, knowing full well that they will overheat, or shutdown, if not now, then later. And that this is in nobody’s best interest.
Do we establish a climate in our classrooms where all learners are valued, not just the fastest? A climate where “Way to Go” is the message that we all send, teachers and students alike, rather than “Why Did It Take You So Long?” And no, I’m not talking about empty praise, but praise for sweat that has been poured, for finish lines that have been crossed, for students who have crawled out of bed on a particular morning and accomplished something, maybe not earth-shattering, but important enough to be recognized, even celebrated.
After all, finishing an 8K in 50ish minutes may not seem like much to most people. But, to me, it’s worthy of breaking out that Gatorade and raising a glass.
I just hope that I will remember to toast more of these moments within my own classroom.