Success in Life is not Proportionate to Success in Today’s Public Schools

Me and my brother at camp, circa 1977

Me and my brother at camp, circa 1977

Over recent years, it seems our schools have come to allow very little room for failure and the inevitable growth that accompanies it.  “Failure is not an option” is the mantra of many well intentioned adults, but this is often at the expense of fostering a life-long love of learning and exploration. Not only for math, science, or other formal subjects, but for real inquiry!   This stress and an intolerance for anything but the best in all areas is compounded by the often misguided efforts of adults.  One cannot be excellent at everything, yet that seems to be a current expectation.

This became acutely apparent to me as I recently drove up Interstate 84 on a trip Boston. Oddly, as if controlled by past memories, I chose to take Exit 72, which is in a remote part of northeastern Connecticut. As an adolescent, the exit meant I was only ten minutes from Camp Woodstock, a YMCA camp I attended in the mid 1970’s.  As if by instinct, I drove to the camp and parked.

I walked around the grounds– the cliche of “it’s amazing how much smaller it seems” holds true– and I was moved by a powerful epiphany; schools need to be more like sleepaway camp. It sounds simple, but it makes sense on many levels.  Those of you who have gone to sleepaway camp need read no further; it’s self evident. However, if you missed out on such an opportunity, let me explain.

Growing up, I spent most of my life in two distinctly different neighborhoods; Southwest Yonkers until I was 13, and then White Plains until I was married . My only real journeys out of those geographical boundaries (other than college) were the YMCA sleepaway camp in Woodstock, CT. and an occasional family vacation to the Jersey Shore or other destinations within a day’s drive.

I started going to sleepaway camp when I was twelve, and during my four weeks at camp those summers, I learned a great deal, much of which still serves me well decades later.

I learned that I had no choice but to get along with my bunkmates, regardless of whether or not I liked them.  I learned about teenage love, with a scraped heart to match scraped knees.  I learned that no matter how hard I tried, at some point I would be the odd man out, miss a goal in soccer, or miss the “last dance” with a girl I liked.

Me and my camp friends as adults, at Camp Woodstock circa 2012

Me and my camp friends as adults, at Camp Woodstock circa 2012

Through my experiences there, I learned to take reasonable risks, that it’s foolish to expect to excel at everything, and that plenty of times–though I took the chance–I would fail. There was no real shame in that, and those failures made me realize the value of my successes.

I am grateful that I chose to stop at Camp Woodstock that autumn day.  It reminded me that success in life is not proportionate to success in today’s public schools or its common core mechanisms; it is measured much differently outside of the echo chamber that is public education.  I was fortunate to learn that lesson early in my life, and it seems to be reinforced, at the strangest times and situations, by my experiences and interactions.

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