10 February 2012
17 Shevat 5772
This Wednesday our faculty and staff watched a screening of the movie Race to Nowhere, which we showed to our school community last year. As we processed the movie and began to reflect, many themes from the movie resonated with our faculty including stress, homework, and other aspects of our school culture. I was particularly struck by one scene in the movie in which a high school girl, talking about the incredible pressure to perform and succeed, asks, “How are you expected to learn and do well if you can’t make mistakes?”
As she spoke those words, I found myself thinking of a disturbing news story about Wes Welker and about a conversation that I had with my nine-year-old son the morning after the Superbowl. According to the Associated Press story, “An online pawnbroker dumped hundreds of Butterfinger candy bars in Boston’s Copley Square on Tuesday with a note: ‘Thank you Wes Welker.’” For anyone who is not aware, Wes Welker, the Patriots’ star wide receiver who led the NFL with 122 receptions this year, dropped a pass at a critical moment in the Superbowl last Sunday night. Now, we know that even making the Superbowl was probably an overachievement for this year’s Patriots team. In spite of the Superbowl results, there is so much to be proud of and to applaud about the team and about Welker, in particular. Yet, let’s think about the message that this Butterfinger practical joke sends to the team, to each player, and, most importantly, to our children: We love you when you win. We love you when you’re successful. We love you when you catch passes. But when you don’t win or when you drop passes, we ridicule you. No matter what you accomplish or how hard you work, if you lose the big game, that is what we remember. In the eyes of so many fans, professional athletes, don’t get to make mistakes.
I grew up surrounded by die-hard, long-suffering Boston sports fans who often yell at players who make mistakes. “You stink! You’re a bum! Get him outta there!,” they scream passionately at the television screen. It is actually half teasing and, to some degree, how we express love for our teams, but I confess that, when I’m watching with my son, I sometimes wonder what subliminal messages this sends. Forget the fact that it encourages harsh, critical, unmenschlicht behavior toward players and human beings whom we should be supporting and respecting. I’m concerned about something deeper and more subtle. What will my son think when he is up to bat or shooting a foul shot or when the game is on the line and the ball is in his hands? What will he think when he takes a test in school or performs in a play? Will he be willing to take risks and make mistakes, which are actually the keys to learning and growth? Or will he, like the girl in “Race to Nowhere,” be afraid to make mistakes? Maybe, he, too, will get yelled at, just like his favorite players.
When I talked to my son after the Superbowl about the Patriots’ loss, I found myself hyper-conscious of this sensitive educational moment. I said to him, “Even the Patriots—Tom Brady and Wes Welker— make mistakes. And they’re still great, and we still love them. We love them when they win. And we love them when they lose.”
When our students, our children, believe that this is actually how their teachers and their families feel about them, they will be well on their way to becoming the best, most fulfilled, and most successful people they can be.
Rabbi Marc Baker