The agony of defeat

By Mir
February 21, 2006

There are times when I think our little school system gets it exactly right, and I know that our decision years ago to move to this little town in Nowhereville was a wonderful gift to our children.

And then there are times when I think our little school system is run by amphetamine-addled monkeys who’ve never met an actual child.

When I am ESPECIALLY lucky, I get to experience both of those convictions within the space of just a few hours! Which is like the excitement of a rollercoaster ride except without the fear of heights and thinking I might puke! But there are no funnelcakes, which is certainly a drawback.

So. Um. I swear I didn’t stop taking my medication, I am just reeeeeeally tired, and a little bit on edge.

I have to say that I think the Invention Convention is a really great program, in theory. The idea of giving kids an outlet for some creativity paired with scientific problem-solving is the sort of thing I think education should be about. So, yay, school system!

I also have to say that holding the actual event 1) on a school day, 2) in a crowded cafeteria, 3) FOR THREE HOURS, and 4) until 9:00 o’clock at night is INSANITY. Sheer madness. There were kindergarteners there; I don’t know anyone whose 5-year-old can be up until 9 or 9:30 (by the time you get home and get into bed) and then get up for school the next day without chewing off the face of the person who dared rouse them from slumber. Heck, my seven-year-old is going to be in sad, sad shape tomorrow morning. That part of it was ridiculous, and poor planning.

To add insult to injury, they insisted on reading off every child’s name and project and handing out each participation certificate, one by one. There were over a hundred participants. We’d all been there for two hours already, milling around and–in the case of the kids who’d entered–sitting by projects, ready to answer questions for the judges. That hour of names and certificates was TORTURE. The mom sitting next to me and I started quietly cracking jokes to each other as the names wore on (and on and on). We didn’t know each other, but there is solidarity in the excrutiating droning on and on of school officials.

Her: Maybe they ought to tell people to hold the applause, between kids.
Me: Yeah… at this rate, we’re gonna be here til midnight.
Her: Don’t be silly. We’ll all be home in time for the late night news.
Me: If they don’t wrap this up soon, I’m gonna be ON the late night news. “Local woman dies at competition. Officials suspect terminal boredom.”
Her: Don’t they look cute all lined up up there, though?
Me: No. They would look cuter in bed, asleep.
Her: Does it always run so late?
Me: I have no idea, this is our first one.
Her: Ours too.
Me: I’m sort of hoping it’s our LAST one.
Her: Me too.
Me: Think anyone’ll notice if we just put the kids to sleep at their desks? That way they won’t be late tomorrow.
Her: Seriously, if I’d known, I would’ve brought pajamas.

So, it was late. Everyone was cranky. I knew that if Chickadee didn’t place, she was going to be crushed.

We had been talking for DAYS about how what’s important is doing your best and seeing the project through to the end. About how not everyone can win. About how winning isn’t everything. About how proud I am of her for doing this, and how she should be proud of her work no matter what.

They announced the kindergarten winners first. Actually, at the kindergarten level, there’s first and second place, and everyone else gets an Honorable Mention. They’re five; that’s fine.

Moving on to first grade. This time there were the top 2 winners and 2 Honorable Mentions. Okay.

Second grade. Chickadee’s grip on me tightened. I whispered into her hair, again, that I was proud of her no matter what. 2 Honorable Mentions, neither for her. My heart sank. I doubted she’d won first or second, based on the other projects I’d seen, and I also very much doubted she’d take it well if she didn’t win. I tried to stay casual as we clapped for each winner. Silver medal. Gold medal.

They moved on to third grade, and Chickadee sat motionless in my lap. I rubbed her arms and smoothed her hair and you know, she seemed okay. I was surprised. She was fine. We listened to the rest of the awards and the closing comments (“Stop commenting already,” muttered the mom next to me) and finally it was time to go.

Chickade stood up in front of me and her chin was nearly on her chest. “Oh, baby,” I crooned, “Are you tired?”

“NO,” she spat, suddenly incensed, “I’m not TIRED. I’m SAD!” And she burst into tears and was–from that moment forward, until I closed her bedroom door here at home–inconsolable. I tried to comfort her, but it was “Why didn’t they like my project?” and “It’s not fair!” and “I hate this stupid contest!” and all sorts of other lovely sentiments.

Her father tried to calm her down. I tried to calm her down. And in the end, there was nothing to do but put her in the car and head home.

I tried everything I could think of. I pointed out that there had been more second grade entries than any other grade; that the competition was stiff and the awards few; that she was a winner just for entering; all the standard things. She was having none of it. I fell back to the parental standard:

Me: Did you do your best?
*here is where the child is supposed to say yes, and then you assure her that that’s all that matters*
Chickadee: NO! *sobbing*
Me: Really?
Chickadee: Yes! I mean NO! I don’t know!
Me: Well, honey, either you did your best and you should be proud of that, or you DIDN’T do your best, and you should try harder next time. Either way, it’s fine. But right now, you’re being a pretty sore loser. I know it’s disappointing, but–
Chickadee: DON’T CALL ME NAMES! *wailing*

Okay, then.

I’m glad the contest is a genuine contest, and not everyone wins a prize. Truth be told, I’m also glad that she didn’t win. I don’t think she did her best, and I don’t think she had the best project (or even one of the best projects) there. I’m not upset that she didn’t win. I’m upset that I have no idea how to help make this a valuable lesson rather than just a crushing disappointment.

I’m also upset that I have to get that child out of bed at 6:30 tomorrow morning. Pray for me.


  1. Sarcastic Journalist

    Um yeah…I wish I could help you with that one. I’m sorry you have to deal with that.

  2. chris

    It sounds lke you handled it the best way that could. It is SO difficult when they are disappointed.

    I’ll be thinking of you at 6:30am, well I will if I am awake ;-)

  3. ben

    Well, good luck with that. What you need is an invention to help get tired kids outta bed!

  4. buffi

    Oh, yuck. That sucks. SugarPlum had that, but with a poster contest to which she gave a half-assed effort. I was relieved that she didn’t win, but she was pissed that the kid who did win practically bragged that her mom did the poster for her. At least we didn’t have to suffer through a long ceremony to find that out.

    Fix her a martini. She’ll get over it.

  5. susan

    I’m not sure it would have helped me when my daughter was in second grade if someone told me this. I’ll say it anyway. 16 years later my heart can still break when I think of the hurts my daughter felt in second grade (and many other grades) and she doesn’t remember 95% of them. So I understand it is hard to know how to help them through the hurts and disappointments and I’m not saying you shouldn’t try but have the peace of mind to know it’s going to end up being more about the fun stuff and the good times and the hugs than it is about the trying times.

  6. wendy

    If this is any consolation, I sat here trying to remember ANYTHING that happened to me in second grade, and all I can remember is that every girl had a crush on Joshua Butters. I can remember almost every detail from first grade (I LOVED MY TEACHER! It’s all good stuff! – well, okay, not all. we had this music teacehr who didn’t wear underwear and as a first grader you sit below her on the floor while she sits in a chair and yes, if her skit is, say, above her knee, you have a straight shot look up to her hoohah and tha’ts just no something you want to be seeing as a first grader, but somehow I don’t think this really equates to seeing your music teacher’s obviously not so private parts), so it’s not just that I have a really poor memory.

  7. ozma

    It’s funny to read this and your last one and think about the future of parenting in the school system. It’s scaaaaarrrrryyyy. I mean, as it is I barely get her to daycare at 9:30 a.m. Homework? What’s that?

    I fear, fear the future.

    I’m sorry it was hard for her. It did break my heart reading that! It kind of makes me mad at them for having a real contest but then there’s the whole life thing you are getting them ready for. Parenting is hard! I’m not ready! I’m not ready! I desperately want to hug your daughter within an inch of her life and buy her the hugest toy known to man. How do you not do that?

    God. 6:30 a.m. I am bowing down and worshipping you now. Do you feel my worship from afar?

  8. laura

    These things start out as crushing disappointments, and either slowly morph into valuable lessons, or are just forgotten. It might stick with her, but if it does, it’ll be a lesson eventually. I think the biggest lesson is: everyone take a bath before you go, and wear your PJs under your clothes.

  9. Contrary

    I could be wrong here (it wouldn’t be the first time!) but I think that some of her angst had to do with the fact that it was late and she was tired.

    I remember when my daughter tried out for cheerleader upon entering Junior High. The try-outs were held in the auditorium in front of EVERYONE. And the kid who could break windows with her screeching when she was mad at her brother? Could not be heard at ALL.

    She was pretty upset, but then decided she was too cool to be a cheerleader. She was right.

  10. Theresa

    In our district, they stopped having Science Fairs because the competition was ridiculous. Now they have little fairs at each school, and everyone gets a participant award. The thing is, I can see both sides of this, and I still don’t know which way I prefer. It’s tough, period.

  11. Nothing But Bonfires

    Awww, my heart is breaking for Chickadee! And for you! I had to enter this stupid fashion design contest once when I was about 15 and I made this AWESOME costume out of yellow, like, garbage bags, and my model wore glasses made out of compact discs and my dad helped me do all of it, and then I WASN’T ONE OF THE PEOPLE WHO WAS CALLED BACK TO ROUND TWO! I think this is why I still can’t watch Project Runway. But I just remember crying and crying and crying, and it was my parents who had to deal with it. And I was 15. So, um, I guess the lesson is that you have at least 8 more years of this to look forward to? And don’t let her enter any fashion design competitions? (And if she does, don’t let her make glasses from compact discs?)

  12. Stephanie

    I got my T-shirt! It’s so cute. Just wanted to share the joy.

  13. steff

    Just wait until standardized tests come along! Poor kiddos. Too be judged by these things…

  14. Zuska

    Aw, poor Chickadee!! I have no words of wisdom to offer. Of course, now I’m dreading the first time my kids enter a contest like this!!

  15. Aj

    Aw. :( Excellent parenting skills – not to berate her and tell her to shape up, but to try and console (well, what she would let you). It doesn’t sound like it was a well thought out event which also doesn’t help. Ah, idealistic school systems . . .

  16. b

    Egads! You are my hero, and with three girls ages four, two and four months I see the future and it looks… ummmmm, full of drama.

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