Headmaster’s Thoughts – December 2004

I spend a surprising amount of time at windows which overlook our school gymnasium, watching regular phys-ed classes. Parents, teachers, and students look at me as I watch, wondering what it is that the headmaster sees in the games the students play—because that is what a great deal of our phys-ed classes are composed of: games of floor hockey, basketball, badminton, volleyball, and soccer. For me, what is special about these games is that they are for recreation. There is no real competition (the sides are chosen at random); the score is not kept on our giant scoreboards; there is no parent cheering section and no real referees except for the gym teachers who, as often as not, play on one side or the other. In other words, we are not copying the NBA or the NHL. These games are for fun only.

Young people have little time nowadays for fun. Most schools (not, thanks heaven, ours) have abolished recess or mid-morning break because there is too much curriculum that has to be packed into the school day. In many schools, if a child took a full course load and a varsity sport and studied an instrument, he or she would not get to bed before 1:00 am each night. Ugh! No wonder I appreciate moments of recreation for kids.

In our schools today, there is such insecurity on the part of parents that their children will not get into “name” colleges that they are forcing resume-padding activities down their children’s throats, hard—music tuition followed by intense travel team sport followed by SAT coaching. One young girl told my wife, who heads our college guidance department, that she is going this summer to climb Mount Kilimanjaro to get into Bowdoin.

There seems to be a guilt that if the child does not make a high-power college, then the parent is at fault. And the result is so little time for group recreation. Recess is a time of social interaction. Just that! Phys-ed games represent non-competitive physical interaction—healthy, low-stress, valuable. I love watching these moments of life when students can be young people without pressure. I enjoy walking through the halls at break, or passing our students as they walk to lunch. These are treasured moments for them, and we should fight to preserve them.

I watch with particular interest how individual students lose recreational games. In this “win at all costs” sports society, I appreciate that losing is a learning experience and important process. For a number of years, I had the privilege of employing the losing quarterback for Columbia. Quite literally, Columbia never won a single game for the years he quarterbacked. You could not have met a nicer guy, full of compassion and self-assurance, one of those teachers that you never forget. I like to think of myself as a mediocre athlete. I ran fast, and I played rugby at Oxford, but I was never very good. My small college lost, during a period that I played, 18 games in a row. I really believe the experience helped me understand who I was. These weren’t adult games. They were boys’ games, and they were lots of fun. If we lost, we lost, but the games were still fun to play. We knew that losing in no way diminished our self-esteem because we truly could win with a smile.

So back to watching those floor hockey games and hoping that the kids get as much fun out of playing them as this old headmaster gets in observing.