Winners and Losers– part one

I started this post, as I said, before I got sick.  Now just coming back to it.  It refers to a sore throat coming on, which is, thankfully, old news but the ideas are ideas I’m just beginning to work to articulate.

For the longest time I have had a small post-it taped to my desktop computer monitor with a small hand-written list of topics about which I’ve wanted to blog.  Dating back to last year’s girl’s basketball season, when our school 4th and 5th grade girls team, coached by my partner and another woman, was undefeated until the final game, I’ve wanted to write about winners and losers.  I thought and wrote last season about the sweetness of seeing our girls win over and over.  But as the season went on, I began to think a lot about the girls on all the other teams.  Girls just like my girl.  The losers of all those games.

I’ve thought a lot about the topic for a long time, but especially since becoming a mother.  I know where I have felt defeated– and I know where I have kept fighting and where I have not, but since becoming a mother, and actually since becoming an aunt, I have hoped to create the conditions so that my nephews and now my own daughter– would never give up– never be left with that kind of final sense of defeat that we adults all have in certain places.  In many places, if we are that honest.  I wrote last year about watching my daughter run for Student Council several times and lose and watching her wrestle with the heartbreaking question that seems to have formed for her, “Maybe I am just not that kind of person– who can win something like that…”  It is not at all that I want to protect her from sad feelings or ever feeling disappointed.  Not at all.  But I never want her to internalize those feelings– nor any young person to internalize those feelings of defeat.  And I don’t want those experiences to come to define her narrative about herself.

I think our understandings of winning and losing and the things we do or do not question about the subject– are intimately connected to very deep and important issues– like racism and like classism, sexism, homophobia– anti-Jewish oppression and disability oppression– to name a few.  You know, the big issues.  How much we really believe that every single person is equally precious and deserving, or how much we actually believe that some people are truly better or more deserving than others (and our feelings about which groups we think we fall into)– are intimately connected to issues of winning and losing.  You may not agree, but at least for now, with a sore throat coming on, I’m just saying and not going to argue the point.

Watching my own daughter and other young people wrestle with the issues of being treated as losers in certain contexts and as winners in others is a big deal.  As the mother of a 4th grader watching the same young people since kindergarten, I see the ways the world has begun to narrow for each child, depending on where they have felt themselves successful or unsuccessful.  I also see the sense of entitlement set in for some children who are often designated as winners.  And frankly, it doesn’t look so good on either end of that stratification which suggests it’s a lousy system to get caught up in.  I’m thinking no one really wins when there are winners and losers as we know those things.  I think it’s all pretty important business.

So here are a few other things on the topic.  I like seeing these 4th and 5th grade girls get to play hard on the basketball court.  Really hard.  Trying really hard, and working on something full out– that seems a good thing.  But does this have to be connected to a winner and a loser?  In our culture, yes.  But I know our culture is so very, very limited.  Maybe, just maybe the answer is no!  This year our girls’ basketball team has won all but one of their games.  But the games have been much closer and everyone has had to play harder and figure out more about the game.  They actually seem to be having more fun than when they just creamed the other teams last year.  Still, I see the tears on the faces of the girls who have been on the losing end of the games lost.

I was especially interested in the conversation I had with my daughter in the evening after they lost their game.  I said, “well, it’s ok.  It’s not a big deal.  You all played hard and you played well and you lost– it’s ok.”   I’m not sure I really think it’s ok — but I do know that if there are going to be winners and losers it’s better the more evenly each designation is spread around.  When I told her it was ok they lost, she said to me– genuinely puzzled “Everyone says it isn’t ok.  Everyone says it’s bad to lose.”  And of course I am right that it’s ok to lose and of course she is right– that it really, really isn’t.  Completely right. I mean although we mouth that it’s ok to lose, any idiot knows it really is not.  That’s a pretty big lie in this culture, but you don’t have to watch more than one World Series or Superbowl or presidential election to know the truth.  No one goes into those things saying, “Well, I just want to try something out here.  But win or lose, whatever happens, it will be the effort that mattered.”

So I’m mulling this over– what it would mean to raise our children in a world that really does not call out winners and losers.  What could we do if we had never lost anything?  Never been designated the loser?  Or the winner, for that matter?  I don’t know, but one thing I do know is that you don’t know either.  None of us does.  Good food for thought, though.

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