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Putting It All On the Line

Captain Picard is life.

Sometimes, life isn’t easy. Sometimes, it’s hard. As a teacher, it can be especially hard to watch your students pour their hearts and souls into something and come up short. It’s times like that when we, as teachers, have to remind ourselves that we can shape these students and push them and cheer for them and they can still fall short of their goals. That doesn’t mean we failed them. That doesn’t mean you didn’t do a great job as a teacher. It just means that this time wasn’t their time.

But boy, oh boy, can that be hard. Trust me, I know. Let me tell you a story…

Two weeks ago, it was time once again for our Beta Club trip to Beta Convention. While we still weren’t taking a record number of students, we had a pretty good group and were entering some new competitions. Our Living Literature scene was from the book Refugee, our engineering team had worked hard on perfecting their roller coaster, a very talented 7th grader was performing a lyrical dance, and we even had a candidate running for Vice President.

We arrived at the Convention and sent our students off to their various competitions over the next two days. Every time, they would come back and say “We did so well!” or “I think I aced it!” Their faces would be aglow with the satisfaction that they knew they had done well enough to win an award. After all, Beta handed out awards to the top 5 in each competition!

Then our Quiz Bowl team didn’t make finals. Since they’d placed second last year, the team was expecting a repeat performance. To not even make it to the final rounds … well, that was quite the blow for the young men. They shook it off and acted like it was all okay but you could tell they were disappointed. My heart sank.

Next, we found out our 7th grade student, who had danced her heart out as the very last performer Wednesday night, had not made finals – something we were sure was a done deal. She refused to talk about it and refused to watch the Top 5 perform. My heart sank a little bit more.

Our student dancing!

The first nights awards ceremony came. We sat there as they called one category after another … and Greer’s name did not come. I watched as one young man, convinced he had scored high enough on his ELA test to place, slumped in defeat and blinked back tears. At the end of the night, not one award had gone to Greer.

Where had we gone wrong? What had I done wrong as a sponsor?

At least there was still hope for the group competitions and from our candidate. Our candidate for Vice President delivered a knockout campaign speech, his skit had, um, heart, and he blew his competition out of the water.

Out getting votes!

Friday morning, the last day of the convention, our hopes rested on the Candidate, Book Battle, and Living Literature competitions. We could not go home with nothing.

As they announced the winners of the various campaigns, I nearly choked out the student in front of me as I twisted his hood around my hand. I was more nervous than the student who had run for VP!

And then, the moment came. The other girl had won Vice President. A collective groan went up from my students and our candidate lowered his head. He was crushed. All his hard work – for nothing. He’d poured his heart and soul into that campaign – and nothing.

When Greer didn’t win Book Battle either, Mrs. Zander (my co-sponsor) came and sat next to me on the steps. “We can’t go home with nothing,” she said.

“I know. Where did we screw up? Did we not practice with them enough? Did we not help them prepare?” I pounded my fist on my knee. “I failed them. I brought them here, took $250 of their parents’ money, and am taking them home with nothing. What’s the point of coming if that’s all we end up with?”

We sat there, planning a last-minute on-the-way-home trip to Broadway at the Beach to end the trip on a good note, as they asked for the five schools who’d placed in Living Literature to come to the stage. Zander gripped my hand and rested her head on my knee as they called one school … two schools … three schools … four schools … this was it, this was our last chance … final school … Greer Middle School! We’d won something! Our small section of the stands erupted into cheers as I sent the head of the team down to line up and collect the award.

“It doesn’t even matter if it’s fifth place!” I exclaimed.

Captain of the Living Lit Team!

Turned out it was second. Second place and a chance to go to Nationals (which is a whole other blog post). And they were ecstatic. Even the kids who hadn’t been on the team were pumped. Sure, there were still those who were disappointed they hadn’t placed. No amount of “you’re all winners” and “you gotta remember that you’re up against the best of the best in the whole state” pep talks were gonna change that.

But the key takeaway, for them and for me, was that they tried. They gave it their all, left their hearts on the Engineering floor or the campaign rally stage, or the Math test table. Just because you fail doesn’t mean you didn’t succeed. Success isn’t always measured by how many trophies you take home.

It’s tough, as a teacher, to remember that. Especially when you’ve watched your students pour their hearts into something, whether it is a competition or a basketball game or a project, and come up short. But the important thing to remember is that those are the real teachable moments. Those are the moments when you remind your students that defeat doesn’t mean you’re a failure, not all the time. Sometimes, it means you cared enough to try. And that’s what’s most important.

Here at the end, I’ll leave you with some pictures of our Living Literature scene. I’d love to chat with you in the comments about teachable moments you’ve had like this one or how your students (and you) have dealt with disappointment. Or if you’re a Beta sponsor like me, I’d love to hear that, too! See you in the comments!

Three scenes in one from the book Refugee
Scene 1: Josef takes off his Jewish star on a train … and runs into a Hitler Youth.
Scene 2: Cuban refugees fleeing to Florida encounter sharks.
Scene 3: Mahmoud lying unconscious after his apartment in Syria is bombed.

How cool was their scene?? Shameless plug – if you haven’t read Refugee, what are you waiting for?? Get thee to a bookstore!