Wednesday, February 18, 2009

A is not for effort

Growing up, I was fortunate to live in a neighborhood where all the guys liked sports, a great thing because that's pretty much all I wanted to do. For me, elementary school was just a place to hang out to make plans about what game we would play after school on which street, cul-de-sac or yard, not a place to learn about geography, the perfect-past tense in English or what was then called "the new math." Football season meant the Rosenberg's yard, located just a few houses down from mine, which was cut and rolled like a golf course and had no trees. Basketball season meant three-on-three games in the Pitt's driveway, which was next door to me. Baseball took us either to an open space that didn't appear to belong to any house in particular, but must have because no one every built anything on it, even as the neighborhood changed over time, or the cul-de-sac where Jeff Balser and David Galler lived, in which case we substituted a tennis ball for the baseball and modified the rules so no one could hit to right-field. After hockey came to Atlanta in 1972, we "converted" the cul-de-sac into a street hockey "rink." We spray-painted a red line down the middle, outlined goalie creases and designated the Balser's mailbox as the "penalty box" because it was made of brick.

We also made up sports of our own, such as "Killer-Ball," which involved the older brothers in the neighborhood throwing a tetherball or basketball at me and my friends while we ran from side-to-side in front of a brick wall. There was also "tackle" freeze tag, which, as the name suggests, did not involve the "it" person tagging another player. You had to tackle him or her. I have no doubt that we played other games that we should have but failed to patent. But injuries suffered in Killer-Ball no doubt have hampered my long-term memory, so this stroll down my personal Wide World of Sports memory lane will have to end here.

Like in most neighborhoods, some of us were better at some sports than others. My best sports were baseball and street hockey. Football belonged to Jeff Balser, and he later became a good street hockey player because he could just overpower people. Jeff Brickman was so good at tennis no one would play him. The best all-around athlete was probably Kenny Froug, who was big, strong and incredibly well-coordinated. A close second was Howard Rabinowich, who didn't have Kenny's size, but was strong as hell and had great reflexes. Kenny was the best basketball player of us all; Howard probably the best all-around baseball player and, along with me, one of the two best street hockey players. We were pretty intense rivals, so intense that the only fight I have ever gotten into in my life came against Howard during a street hockey game. He burned me all afternoon and I just started mouthing off against him. After warning me to shut up, I jumped him when he wasn't looking. Howard turned around and hit me, and that was that. Now that I think about it, it wasn't much of a fight. Thinking about it even more, I am grateful that Howard didn't kill me.

No matter how hard I tried, though, I just couldn't play basketball very well. I used to shoot baskets in the Pitt's driveway for hours -- and sometimes I even hit the rim. Sometimes on weekends my friends and I would sneak into our nearby high school so we could play full court basketball on a wood floor. No one ever picked me first.

Or second.

Or third.

Or . . . or . . . or.

"Who wants Ivers?" someone would plead so we could get the game going.

"How come you're so good at baseball and running but you suck at basketball?" another mystified friend would wonder -- out loud.

"What the hell is this? This is bullshit!! Why didn't you tell me you sucked?" another, less familiar "friend" would scream after realizing that taking me fairly high in the team-picking ritual because I had a reputation as a good baseball and street hockey player was a huge mistake. The assumption, of course, is that because I was good at a couple of sports I should, by default, be good at them all.

But I wasn't. Especially basketball. Even football, a sport I have absolutely no interest in and have not watched since my senior year in college, when a "fan" in back of me at the Missouri-Oklahoma game was so moved by the Mizzou's suprise victory that he threw up on me (chili dogs and what smelled like Jack Daniels and Coke), then stepped on and over me to rush the field so he could tear down the goal posts, I played respectably. By neighborhood standards, I had fairly decent speed and could catch a pass. Even all these years later, I still relish my great achievement in 8th grade football -- breaking Alan Harris's collarbone during a tackling drill. Had I not started running cross-country, a fall sport, I might have continued to play football.

Or at least that's what I tell people. The truth is more complicated: my first high school had perhaps the worst football team of any high school ever, and I needed a respectable excuse to avoid getting killed. My second high school was a football powerhouse, and I had about as much of a chance to see so much as a single snap during a game, even if we had been winning 377 to 0 against my former high school. So, yes, that's how bad I really was. Who wants to take risk on a 377 point lead against the worst high school football team ever with 11 seconds to go?

And that's where the first part of this story, a very long precursor to the short second part of this story, ends.

* * * * * * * * * *

Now he's the short middle part. I practiced my dribbling, shooting and rebounding all summer and fall in anticipation of trying out for the 8th grade basketball team. Balser, Howard and Kenny Froug were locks. Brickman sucked and had no chance. Caryn Mandel, who was as good as any of us in the neighborhood at whatever sport she took up, was probably the most talented athlete of us all; thankfully, she couldn't embarrass us macho men because she was safely stashed away on the girls teams.

The new coach actually found me in the hallways about a month into school and said that he "looked forward" to seeing me on the team.

"Word is you're a good athlete," I remember him telling me. "Looking forward to it."

Obviously not, since, about two months later he cut me from the 8th grade boys' team, which, if memory serves me correctly, didn't win a game that year. But he offered me quite a consolation prize: team manager, which would, in his words, "allow" me to practice with the team and stand under the basket and pass the ball back to him after his post-practice ritual -- 100 free throws.

Still, I didn't get any better.

"Ivers," he said to me. "I like you. I do. But this is not your game. Do yourself a favor and concentrate on your other sports."

"All right. Free throw time. Here we go . . ."

1 . . . 23 . . . 48 . . . 63 . . . 98, 99 and finally, 100. After I gathered up his 100th free throw and placed the ball back in the rack, I walked down to the locker room, gathered my stuff, which, of course, did not include any school books, and walked home. No one else knew it at the time, but that marked my retirement from organized basketball. I did not ask for nor did I receive a golf cart, vacation to the Caymans, a retired jersey or the answers to that week's geometry quiz. As hard as I tried to play basketball, I just didn't have any aptitude for the game. So long, then.

* * * * * * * * * *

Maybe I made a mistake walking away from a game I never played. Maybe I should have taken my cues from the contemporary college students interviewed in a telling, although not surprising, New York Times article this morning on why students think they deserve As or Bs not based on how well they fared on graded projects in any given course, but because they went to class, or tried hard or simply "need" the grade for some other objective. The article is based on a recently released study by a team of University of California professors on the rise of the "entitlement" mentality among college undergraduates. Here's one student's view of things:

"I think putting in a lot of effort should merit a high grade. What else is there really than the effort that you put in? If you put in all the effort you have and get a C, what is the point? If someone goes to every class and reads every chapter in the book and does everything the teacher asks of them and more, then they should be getting an A like their effort deserves. If your maximum effort can only be average in a teacher’s mind, then something is wrong."
As shocking as this statement might be to someone who graduated from college ten years ago or more, it is an absolutely accurate reflection of how many -- and I would go so far as to say most -- undergraduates view the grading process.

"I'm here -- usually -- and that should count for something. I bought the books -- most of them -- and that should count for something. I didn't sleep the whole time and only pocket-texted for the first and last parts of class -- and maybe some in the middle and beginning-middle and middle-end parts -- and that should count for something."
All right, so I made that paragraph up. But after reading the comment above it, did you think, at least for a few seconds, that it was another student quoted in the article?

"You need to understand that not everyone cares about this stuff as much as you do. We need our grades to go to law school or get a job, and it isn't fair that you expect us to know as much as you do. You are playing with our futures so you should base our grades on our lives not yours."
Now that quote I didn't make up. That was a comment from the "narrative" evaluation component of the student surveys on "teaching effectiveness" last semester -- from the "Honors" class I taught.

The "entitlement mentality" is something I've written extensively about in this space. Youth sports, college admissions, access to wealth, perfect skin, cars that don't breakdown, law school admissions, morally compromised sex partners . . . all these are expectations rather than goals for a good number of people who live in privilege, come from it or believe their education entitles them to certain careers, stuff, grades, money or social status. They see no reason why they can't have what they want because they want it. Just last week I wrote a piece called, "Competition," which, in essence, tried to argue that there is a huge difference between learning how to work the system to your advantage and genuine competition that tests our skills. Reading the Times story made me think I might be on to something. Advantages, whether we're born into them or acquire them through luck or hardwork, accrue over time like compound interest. They never really go away unless we let them. In many ways, the entitlement mentality is a by-product of our false perception that ours is a meritocratic society, and that we can be anything we want. The truth is a much more complex matter. And while the truth will set you free, it sometimes comes at a considerable cost to our self-esteem, as well as our understanding of how the world really works.

* * * * * * * * * *

Dribble, dribble, dribble. Free throw after free throw after free throw. Suicide sprints by myself. Challenging myself to H-O-R-S-E games in the Pitt's driveway and not quitting until I had made all my shots. Converse Hi-Tops, then Adidas Superstar sneakers . . . spent what money I had in hopes that the shoes would make the difference. Nothing helped. In the end, I got cut from my 8th grade basketball team. Perhaps I should have made the team and not suffered through the indignity of serving, against my will, as the manager. But it didn't work out that way. Sometimes hard work, determination and a dream, however noble, are not enough. By the time a student enters college, that lesson should already have been learned. If not, this is as good a place as any to start.


Matt K. said...

I'm about to go into a series of meetings where we are going to decide which staff to cut from the budget. I can guarantee you one thing - all of them tried really hard (the ones who don't are easy decisions). Some were not so bad, but effort is assumed in the real world. Results (sometimes beyond your control) matter. The entitlement generation is slowly learning that - may be college gave them a pass - this economy won't.

The Dissenter said...

I like this theory. I wonder what will happen when one of these morons takes their "effort is sufficient" rant to a law school professor, or even a judge...I'd love to see them get their ass kicked real good.