Friday, December 3, 2021

My Word this Week

My friend, Maureen Ryan Griffin, sends out a great newsletter and in each one she gives a word for the week as a prompt for writers.
Most recently her word was failure. It made me think of a word that is popular with Americans and probably most people everywhere. The word is competition

I don't like competition although most children seem to be brought up with the idea they must compete with others and then winning becomes their goal. I have never been very good with competitive games. If I win, I don't feel like gloating and celebrating. Perhaps because I am an empath, I feel sympathy for those who lost, for the people or person I defeated. When I lose, I am not disappointed.

Growing up in the country on a farm my little sister was my playmate. We never played competitive games. We played together and gloried in our creativity and imagination. We did not participate in team sports because we did not have a team. The other children in our community lived too far from us to gather 
and play ball or any team games.  

All I knew about team sports I learned was when Daddy managed a baseball team and two of my older brothers played on his team. On Saturday afternoon or maybe it was Sunday, Mother made a picnic basket and bottled water from our well. She and Daddy along with Gay and me climbed into the pickup truck and drove a few miles to a farm where the owner had laid out a baseball field in one of his pastures. Ray and Hal, my brothers who were pretty good players, would not miss a game. Gay and I played with other little girls, ate from the picnic basket, and paid little attention to the game. 

Unlike some sisters, Gay and I were never in competition. 
In fact, I remember that we encouraged each other in whatever we attempted. Gay tells me now that she never liked to ride a horse, but she always rode with me until I was old enough to leave the farm and meet my friends who also rode horses. 

You can imagine how I felt when I went to school and was expected to play kickball in fifth grade. I hated recess because I had never played such games and I was awkward and embarrassed when I had to kick the ball. In junior high, now called middle school, I had to take physical education. I was mortified because I had to change clothes in front of other kids I didn't know. In my family modesty was ingrained in all of us. It didn't help that I was a skinny little self-conscious girl. I often heard my aunts talking to Mother about how thin I was. They were not being mean but were concerned that I was not healthy. In those days, a plump child was considered a very healthy child. 

The children who had grown up playing team sports could not wait to get outside to play softball for an hour.
I would have given my right arm if I could have gone to the library for that hour to read. My P.E. teacher was a petite blond, tanned, pretty woman with all the curves in the right place. When possible I tried to hide in the dressing room and evade going outside at all. I also found that being a skinny kid, I could hide behind a tree when the teams were being chosen. No one told on me because they didn't want me on their team anyway. 

Seventh grade was a deeply disappointing year for me. From the first grade and through the sixth grade, I was proud of my perfect report card. I was a good reader. I always did my homework and was a person who enjoyed learning. You can imagine how upset I was when I took home my first report card in seventh grade. My P.E. teacher gave me a 3, equivalent to a C, as the grade for my first semester. That meant I was no longer on the Honor Roll. My studies and my good grades gave me the distinction of being on the Honor Roll. But Miss Bishop didn't know or care what this did to me. I was devastated when I showed that report card to my parents. Miss Bishop, who had another name by the time I entered eighth grade, never taught me how to play anything. She simply ruined my life by judging me as a poor student because I could not play basketball or softball. 

When I entered Albany High School, my brother, Ray, began his first year teaching at the same school
We had the same last name so students and teachers quickly figured out we were related. Although physical education was an abominable disaster for me, the teacher chose to ignore me and my grades did not drop below a 2 or B which allowed me to join the Tri-Hi-Y club. Members of that club were respected for their good grades, moral standing, and academic ability, not for how well they played ball.

As an adult, I found team sports boring and could not get interested in college sports or national sports. While the men in my family cheered for the University of Georgia football team and the Atlanta Braves, I had other interests. If UGA lost a Saturday afternoon game, my husband and my brother Ray, were depressed for a week. 

Living in the south and with a mostly masculine family, I learned that men have a common language--football. After I married, I found it benefited me to read the newspaper articles that referred to players I had heard my husband talk about. He was impressed when I threw out something I had read about his team or the coach and players. 

I could not watch football on TV or in person without wincing and turning away when the players slammed into each other. It all seemed so uncivilized to me. I still can't understand what joy the players get or the fans get from someone on the other team getting hurt and having to leave the game. 

For a number of years, Barry and I joined my brother, Rex, and his wife, to drive for hours to Athens Georgia for the football games. 
I enjoyed the company but endured the game. Once, on a hot September afternoon, I fainted as we left the stadium. In those years, women dressed up for the football games in pantyhose, dresses, and high heels. We also made food for a tailgate picnic. I could not believe it but found that people were in competition for the best tailgate party. How dumb, I thought.

Competition divides people. Competition creates a place for poor sportsmanship. Competition brings on pain, hurt, humiliation for anyone who loses. Winners develop a sense of power over others. They often shame the ones who lose. The word Fight is used all the time in sports. Fighting makes me think violence.

This is why I don't encourage competition in my writing classes. In fact, we don't attack the writing of others. We encourage! I tell my students that when we hear our peers read their work, we first talk about what we like, not what we think is wrong with their work. After we talk about the positive, then we can suggest ways the author might improve his/her work. My students love this method and they learn so much about their own writing. They bond and develop trust in each other.

Many critique groups fail because members of the group destroy the author with their harsh comments. 
Writers avoid groups because they are afraid everyone is a better writer, or that they will be embarrassed or be shamed by the comments of others. How sad. They feel shame and they should not because we all start somewhere, and we all write those abysmal first drafts. But when those early poems or stories are shared without competition in mind, and they hear what is good about their work, they find the suggestions made let them go home and try again.

It hurts me to hear from good writers that they felt attacked in the writing group they attended and will not go back. 

I insist my students never compare their work to the others in the class. There are always more experienced writers as well as beginners. You cannot compare them and say one writer is better than another when there are many different levels of achievement in a group or in a workshop. 

If we all do our best to improve what we do, our only competition is ourselves. 

This essay written by my friend and former student, Rebecca Gallo, relates to the way people feel competitive even about their homes. 
What do you think? Are you competitive or not?

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