Lessons greater in losses than wins

Published 12:04 am Friday, April 4, 2008

Is it possible to lose and win at the same time?

In a world in which phrases like “Failure isn’t an option” and “Winning isn’t everything; It is the only thing” are recited as much as some Bible verses, it is no wonder that our children are obsessed with success.

The pressure put on kids today to not only learn, but also succeed in everything they do is tremendous.

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In such an environment, you have to ask yourself why a group of children would be sent to a competition you know they are not going to win.

Such is the case with the Trinity Episcopal Science Olympiad Team.

When I went to photograph the team Monday, the excited, young faces quickly took me back to my high school days.

Having grown up in small town Alabama since I was in the fourth grade, I can remember being in the very same spot as these youngsters.

With bright eyes and triumphant smiles, each one of the high schoolers proudly showed off the gold, silver and bronze medals they won in last weekend’s state competition.

For the third year in a row, the small school in Natchez swept the competition made up of some of the state’s largest middle schools.

Who could blame some of these students if they thought they were going to travel up to Washington, D.C., in May and blow away the competition?

The reality is that Trinity’s best and brightest will probably walk off the George Washington University campus with little more than the memory of the experience.

They will not win the competition.

Just thinking about it brought me back to the days when I was a lanky, uncoordinated teenager in spring of 1985.

Completely obsessed with computers, I spent hours at my Commodore 64 developing programs. A teacher at my school recognized my abilities and pushed me to concentrate on doing something more than playing video games on my computers.

With her prodding and my father’s guidance I entered the local science fair with a project that made a computer see and identify a set of shapes. It was a simple project. Luckily, computer entries were popular among judges and my effort made it all of the way to the International Science Fair.

Here was this bright-eyed small-town kid ready to take on the world. Overly confident, I walked into the Dallas convention center with my yellow painted plywood backboard and home computer ready to show my competitors what they were up against.

It didn’t take long for me to find out that I was completely wrong.

My thumb-tacked letters with hand-drawn diagrams were no match for the professionally made projects that filled the convention hall.

The title of my project, “How to make computers see,” was no match for the project titles comprised of 14 words, over half of which I could not pronounce.

I was not going to win a medal that year.

At the time, I didn’t realize that my failure at the International Science would be one of the greatest experiences of my life — not because I lost, but because I won a new perspective on life.

I learned that there was a whole new world outside of my school and my town in West Alabama.

I learned that this world is not filled with people who are just like me.

I learned that there is a world with infinite boundaries and limitless possibilities. Sometimes it is easy to think that your tiny corner of the world is just like every other corner of the world — that your school is the same as every other school.

And then in the span of a few days your world expands exponentially.

It was both a scary and exciting at the same time.

That is the way it is for all of the local students who are fortunate enough to go and visit students from other areas of the world.

The Trinity team will probably not come home with a medal this May. But I know they will come home with a new perspective.

And that is the importance of education — learning not winning.

Ben Hillyer is the Web editor of The Natchez Democrat. He can be reached at 601-445-3540 or ben.hillyer@natchezdemocrat.com.