Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Whiz Kids - on stage and on the field

Last week, we went to see the Arts Club's latest offering on Granville Island, The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee. It was a lovely romp: a burlesque on the whiz kids one meets in life, with the current popularity of spelling bees as the backdrop. And yet, through the sometimes over-the-top caricatures, there was a very poignant message about the way children can get screwed-up by self-indulgent parents: parents pre-occupied with "finding themselves" or validating their own lifestyle choices through the kids. (Interestingly, the tired old theme of the parent imposing their own failed ambitions on the child was not one of the "targets" of the story.)

(As well as being a lot of fun, it was wonderful to see Sarah-Jeanne Hosie on stage again. I knew her as a teenager in Victoria and her mother rescued a play I was directing by taking on the choreography. Now, Sarah-Jeanne is the Next Big Thing in Vancouver musical theatre as an actress, dancer and choreographer.)

But the play also got me to thinking about kids and competition and fun. The idea of a spelling bee is very much like the idea of Reach For The Top, the TV quiz show in which I played for two years in the 70s. I loved playing and I loved winning, which our teams did consistently -- except for the two times we were faced with the psychological game from our opponents. Somehow, that seed of doubt about our own game put us off just enough that we second-guessed ourselves -- and in a game that requires split-second decision-making, like whether one has the answer and whether to push the buzzer button, that's anethema -- and we lost those games.

It also connected in my mind with Jim (not his real name), who played little league with my son and who, I recently learned, is now in the majors. There was no question Jim was good: he'd remind anyone about that -- including other kids on the team -- any chance he got. He'd been well-schooled and taught by willing parents and coaches, but they left out that important x-factor: attitude and a measure of humility.

My son, who was still of the mindset that, at age 9, youth baseball was supposed to be a time to learn the game and have fun, was a frequent target for verbal abuse because his skill level was considerably lower than this Jim's. In a playoff game, Jim actually asked the coach, loudly, if he could pinch-hit for my son if his turn to bat came, even though he -- Jim -- had already batted. That game was the last straw, and I spoke to the coach about Jim's attitude and the effect it was having on my son. "Yes, kids are entitled to have fun when they play," he agreed. But I saw no change in his approach.

(My daughter, on the other hand, who's about five years younger than my son, was considerably more vocal, and would unleash a torrent of abuse on Jim from time to time. She was NOT putting up with anyone going after her brother.)

That experience more or less ruined baseball for my son. He hung in there for a couple more years, but I wasn't able to teach him the basics (I'm an horrendous teacher) and coaches didn't seem willing or able to work with individuals, and he left the game just before the bantam level.

For me, I find I have difficulty looking at other hot young prospects in the majors. The commentators rave about their skills and talent and I wonder how many other children had their experiences ruined because the resident little league phenom couldn't keep things in perspective.

In another posting about a year ago, I wrote about Al Jordan, who had just passed away. His son Randy was another kid phenom, but as much like "Jim" as I'm like Hercules. We played hockey together briefly in peewees -- until it was determined it wasn't fair to the other kids to play against someone that gifted and he was moved up to an older age group. Randy was brilliant, but he never talked about it. His play spoke for itself, and he also understood that, if you're that talented, you help others bring up their game.

"Let's skate and pass," he said to me at one practice. We just skated up and down the ice, passing the puck back and forth. He showed me how to "lead your man" -- passing the puck just ahead of your teammate so he could skate into it, maybe making him speed up a bit so he can be near top speed when it hits the stick. Randy's attitude wasn't "lead your man ... ya dummy!", but "lead your man ... teammate". And somehow, the fact that I was being taught by someone who otherwise was my peer made the lesson stick through all these years.

(Randy also imparted another insight that's stuck with me to this day. He knew I had a yearning to work in radio, and one day, when we were playing Junior-B baseball (or, more accurately, we were on the same team: Randy was a starter; I occasionally got into the late innings if the game was already pretty much decided), he passed on a helpful hint he'd learned from his dad. "Smile when you're announcing," he said. "It opens up your facial cavity and turns that into a resonating chamber." Even now, when that mic goes on, my cheeks rise just a little.)

It would be nice to think that the "Jim"s of this world are the exception and the "Randy"s are the rule. Maybe the young major leaguers I look at so cynically are actually the kind who would take a less-skilled teammate aside and give them a helpful hint or just a word of encouragement -- even hearing Randy shout from the dugout, "Come on, big 1-3! Base-hit, buddy!", was enough at times; maybe they were less-skilled, themselves, and benefitted from hearing from one of those phenoms. When we are gifted, God calls us to be giving. And that's an attitude that only comes from one place: parenting

I think Brian Lord's remembrance of Al Jordan in that blog entry gives an insight into Randy's upbringing. Indeed, there's a lot to be said about parenting and perspective: remind kids, for one thing, that we do not function independently of one another. Things we say and do, our behaviour and our attitude, affect others. Don't listen to the cop-out that we have to be responsible for the way we respond to something: we are called to speak and act in love, putting others well ahead of ourselves, asking God to keep a watch over our lips. That's one of the lessons the kids learned in Spelling Bee, and it's something in which we could all use a refresher course.

For when the One Great Scorer comes

To write against your name,

He marks - not that you won or lost -

But how you played the game.

-- Grantland Rice

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