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Losing the freedom to be average, not the freedom to fail, is the real threat

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Rather than raise the bar of excellence, Americans seem content to lower it. (Photos from Wikimedia Commons)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The following essay is a response to Michael Goodwin’s video about the freedom to fail.

“I just have a lot on my mind,” Grant told me, which was sort of like an Olsen twin claiming to have a lot on her middle. Grant is the third of my seven younger siblings, and he has autism. On that disorder’s broad spectrum, he falls somewhere in the middle: Neither a savant nor a simpleton, Grant had long been enrolled in mainstream classes but always needed academic assistance.

Now in 11th grade, Grant worried he would not receive a high school diploma. He had failed the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System (MCAS) test, a prerequisite for graduation, a second time. My perpetually relaxed little bro was suddenly stressed to a degree I’d never seen.

Grant’s situation divided my sensibilities. I applauded the state’s effort to combat the culture of social promotion described by Michael Goodwin in “New Threats to Freedom.” No longer could compassionate, or exasperated, teachers dress unqualified students in caps and gowns; every kid in the state had to pass a standardized test. But was Grant — who worked harder than most of his peers — really the kind of student the Department of Education meant to target when it conceived the MCAS?

Goodwin argues that “losing the freedom to fail really takes away the opportunity to succeed.” But the real threat is not losing the freedom to fail but rather losing the freedom to be average.

A brilliant senior on graduation day doesn’t resent a handicapped classmate — or even a slacker — who collects the same scroll she does.  That they did not fail does not cheapen her accomplishment.

What she does resent, what does degrade her sense of achievement, is that so many of her ordinary contemporaries somehow finished high school with extraordinary grade point averages similar to her own. The boy beside her doesn’t know the difference between affect and effect, but he, too, earned an A in English class. The girl two rows back isn’t sure which Roosevelt held office during World War II and remains convinced that water occupies a square on the periodic table, but she, also, made the honor roll.

More often than they push through students who ought to fail, our schools artificially bolster the GPAs of students who ought to carry 2.0s. If the former is social promotion, the latter is social inflation. It is the bar of excellence, not the bar of passage, we have lowered too far.

Americans don’t need to revive failure to promote success. Overcrowded prisons and high unemployment rates testify to the robust health of failure in this country.

Instead, we need to defibrillate mediocrity. Our unwillingness to identify the middling members of society subverts our ability to celebrate the truly superb.

“Without failure, we can’t know what success is,” Goodwin contends. “There’s no way to measure it.”

Without mediocrity, there’s no way to measure either.

Grant passed the MCAS on his third try. He got his diploma but didn’t go to college. He works at The Home Depot.

Seems pretty average to me.

Written by callumborchers

March 26, 2011 at 10:19 am

Right to know vs. right to privacy

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This is off my beat, but I believe it’s worth sharing.

Last Wednesday, I wrote an article for Wellesley Patch, called “Wellesley Police Make First Arrests of Thanksgiving Week.” The story included brief accounts of two drunk driving arrests that occurred in the days leading up to the holiday. In keeping with the publication’s standard practice, we posted the offenders’ names and addresses.

On Monday, I received the following e-mail:

Hi Callum, I appreciate your attempting to alert the community, and as a mother of 4 children, I greatly appreciate what you are doing, but there is another side to this story that you should have been aware before you wrote this. A drunk driving offense could happen to anybody, you included. Pam Stanley is a loving, single mother who was on her way home from a holiday party. True her eyes were blood shot, but a big reason is because she had been crying. I understand that you want to report a story, but it is NOT necessary, and frankly I find irresponsible reporting, to print her full name and address. Because of your article, she is now in a position that she could lose her job. Then she would not be able to find another job once anyone hears the circumstances in which she were fired. She is the sole provider of her family. Her husband barely contributes in any way. He is living in VT and barely sees the children. Do you want this on your shoulders? I see that you are young. Since you had no problem including her name, seems to me that you haven’t yet made any mistakes in your life that you regret. Callum, one day you will and, for your sake, I hope no one throws it in your face the way you did to Ms. Stanley. This is Ms. Stanley’s first and last time offense. As wrong as what she did, she should be entitled to make a mistake and to her privacy as a first time offender. I am asking that you please delete her name and address from your article immediately – and certainly before her employment sees this. Thank you. Lauri

Today, I responded:

Hi Lauri,

Thank you for taking time to write to me. Ms. Stanley is lucky to have a friend like you who stands up for her.

I certainly can appreciate your perspective. An arrest report documents a single event, often a person’s most shameful event. It does not include all the good things a person has done in the past, nor does it account for other challenges in a person’s life. I understand why that seems unfair. Sometimes, a good person makes a bad decision.

However, the standard practice of Wellesley Patch and many other publications is to publish the names and addresses of all arrested individuals. Such information is publicly available at any police station in this country. Understand that while Ms. Stanley might desire privacy, she is not entitled to it. In fact, it is the public that is entitled to know the identities of people arrested in their communities.

I hope you are right that this was the first and last time Ms. Stanley will be arrested for OUI and that people who know her will — like you — not forget all of her admirable qualities because of an isolated incident.

Have a safe and happy holiday season,

Callum

Just an interesting reminder that we cover real people with real consequences. It’s easy to get frustrated when people don’t understand or appreciate what we do, but I think it’s important for us to understand their perspectives, too.

Written by callumborchers

November 30, 2010 at 3:43 pm

Adaptive rowing debuts at Head of the Charles Regatta

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She doesn’t even have a disability, but entering the Head of the Charles Regatta’s first-ever adaptive race, Katherine McMackin might have faced the greatest handicap of anyone. The Capital Rowing Club coxswain was charged with navigating a three-mile stretch of river that many consider the most challenging head course in the world, in a four boat whose members had rowed together exactly once.

“Well, we rowed up to the start line,” clarified Natalie McCarthy, who manned the shell’s third seat.

Alright, twice, counting that.

“Everyone comes in knowing that they’re gonna have to change their stroke, which is a great thing because that’s not always the case,” said McMackin, somehow flipping her crew’s nice-to-meet-you status — in a sport that rewards team coordination in the extreme — from negative to positive. “Everyone comes in thinking, ‘OK, how can I get my stroke to match everybody else’s stroke?’ We were just really able to do that on Friday [during practice].”

Two days later, Capital won the 46-year-old regatta’s inaugural adaptive event — open to people with verifiable, permanent disabilities, who have functional use of their legs, trunks and arms for rowing — in 21 minutes, 44 seconds. Two of its rowers, Kathy Byington and Jason Beagle, are from the Washington, D.C. area, where Capital is based; the other two, McCarthy and Aerial Gilbert, are from the West Coast.

The crew needed a couple rowers; a couple rowers needed a crew. The U.S. national adaptive program facilitated the partnership — Gilbert was a national team member from 2002-07, and McCarthy has trained with the team at development camps for five years — but the foursome arrived in Cambridge without so much as a single synchronized stroke.

Consider it one more obstacle overcome.

“I was paralyzed in 1994 in a car accident, in my right leg, so I relearned how to walk,” Beagle said. “I’m not a runner — it’s not something that I do,” he added, laughing at himself. “But I found that I could row. So, for the last four years, I’ve been competing at U.S. masters, nationals. … This year, I saw [the Head of the Charles] as an opportunity to compete on a level playing field with other adaptive rowers.”

Two other crews, from the Philadelphia Rowing Club and the Cambridge-based Community Rowing Inc., entered HOCR’s adaptive race, bringing first-year athlete participation to a dozen. While the teams rowed for victory — “Next time, we’re gonna win,” said Lisa Boron, who coxed Philly’s second-place four — they also rowed for inspiration.

“For me, to get to be a part of the very first team that gets to row at the Head of the Charles [is special],” said Gilbert, who rowed collegiately before losing her sight as an adult. “I was hoping for years that they would include adaptive events here, and this opens the minds of people in boathouses all over the country, all over the world. And it also gives people the idea who have a disability that, ‘Hey, there is an opportunity for me.’”

Already, more teams are expressing interest in the 2011 event. Many elite adaptive rowers were unable to compete in this year’s Head of the Charles because they were in New Zealand, preparing for the World Rowing Championships, Oct. 30-Nov. 7.

HOCR expects some of those teams, as well as new club teams, to come to Cambridge next autumn, when there will be no scheduling conflict.

“Next year, we’ll definitely have more of a national team presence and Paralympic presence,” HOCR Adaptive Organizing Committee member Rachele Pojednic said. “We’ve gotten calls from Three Rivers, Austin, Canada, California. We’ll have a nice blend of elite and club rowers, and that’s what the spirit of the Head of the Charles is all about.”

Pojednic added that the regatta may expand its adaptive offerings to accommodate a range of ability levels. The mixed-gender, legs, trunk and arms event was the only adaptive race this year.

Whether expansion comes next year or in 10 years, adaptive rowing appears to be entrenched in the Head of the Charles. While the original participants are proud of their pioneering, they are also looking forward to future regattas, when they won’t be such novelties.

“I’ve always been one to appreciate the just-go-and-row [mentality] and set aside all the things that make it different or unusual,” said McCarthy, who went blind at age 10 but rowed with the varsity eight at Pacific Lutheran University. “So, I am pretty excited that they have this event now, and as the years go on, it’ll become more and more part of the event, part of the normal procedure.

“We’re just like every rower here; we’re respected just as much and in the same light.”

From now on, adaptive rowing won’t be new to the Head of the Charles, and Capital’s rowers won’t be new to each other. Not that unfamiliarity — or anything else — ever held them back, anyway.

“It went so well on Friday that we knew that when Sunday came, we were gonna have a great race,” McMackin said.

Written by callumborchers

October 29, 2010 at 10:59 am