In the Heat of the Day

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It was an unseasonably hot day for April, but then every day has been unseasonable this year with cold weather returning in spring and violent storms blowing in for an hour to tear things apart and then leaving as fast as they came. There was a track meet that afternoon and somehow it seemed far too warm for the long distance runners, but their heat was scheduled for late in the day when the temperatures ease down a bit, so all seemed well. Then we received the last minute news that the schedule had been turned topsy turvy like the Mad Hatter’s tea party. First was last and last was first. Everything was in reverse which meant that there would be young women and men running the 3200 meter race in the hottest part of the day with the sun bearing down on them at near ninety degrees.

We rushed to the track to view the contest and had barely found our seats when the young women took their positions for the 3200 meter race and were off at the sound of the gun. At first they did not appear to  be affected by the heat that was burning the back of my neck and causing my blouse to stick to my skin. I presumed that they were in such good shape that they would hardly notice that it was not a time conducive to attempting to run at top speed for around two miles. After about four laps around the track the toll that the temperature was taking on their bodies became more and more obvious. Their faces were turning beet red and the strain registered on their faces. By the time they had finished the course many were vomiting and others were crumbling in exhaustion or even fainting. They had made it apparent that have such a long race in far too hot and humid conditions had been overly stressful to their bodies.

When running the body responds to the outside temperature in multiple ways. The longer the time spent pushing for speed, the more negative forces are placed on the mechanisms of the body. If it is sixty degrees the runner feels as though it is eighty degrees, so running for a prolonged period at eighty nine degrees means that the runner is experiencing a feeling inside his/her body as though it is actually one hundred nine degrees. If the humidity is also high it becomes difficult to sweat, which is a necessary way of keeping the internal body temperature within safe limits. The body begins to react to what it sees as an assault which is why some of those girls eventually puked and fainted. They had unwittingly sent their internal systems into a state of emergency.

The 3200 meter race for that day had originally been scheduled for around seven in the evening. Had that tradition been followed the sun would have been lower on the horizon and the temperature would have been more amenable to a prolonged physical effort. The short sprints should have been first just as they usually are. Those runners would not have been as affected by the heat because their attempts last under a minute. Putting the most grueling race first was a questionable decision for adult coaches who should have known better. They were lucky that nobody was hurt even more seriously.

My grandson was one of the runners in the boy’s 3200. He is usually a beast on the track with a final kick that sends him in front of his competitors on a regular basis. He is highly respected for his prowess and his ability to garner some inner force to get the job done. On this day with the heat raising the temperature to what felt like over one hundred degrees his body told him to be cautious. He was a contender for a mile, but then he felt everything inside him shutting down. He became seriously dehydrated and his muscles felt uncharacteristically weak. He sensed that pushing himself unnecessarily would be hazardous to his well being, and so he slowed his pace to a trot that allowed him to breathe and brought him a measure of control. Sadly this was the district meet that determined whether or not he would represent his school at the state contest, and he was considered to have a better than good shot at being one of the top four runners. On that day it was not to be. He finished in the middle of the pack with his face red from the exertion and his skin feeling as hot as if he were in the throes of a serious illness. It was a disappointing moment, and one wrought with a sense of anger that the adults who should have understood why having the longest race of the meet in such conditions was a bad, unfair and dangerous call.

As an educator I was taught to consider all of the possible unintended consequences of my decisions before enacting them. I understood that I was ultimately responsible for the well being of my students as long as they were in my care, and so I had to be conscious of everything from the structure of my classroom to the words that I uttered. My job was almost akin to policing or being on a battlefield in that I had to observe, and think, and be ready to change course in an instant in response to each of my kids. There were no excuses for letting down my guard. I was the bulwark against any harm that threatened to come to my kids, and if I was careful and on my toes things generally went well. It was only when I didn’t think things through that problems occurred. Luckily few of my faulty decisions involved the physical well being of my charges.

I would warn those who deal with sports or band practices or any sort of activity that is affected by extremes of temperature that they consider the possible problems with their schedules and the order in which they do things. The runners on that hot day that I witnessed had only exited their buses thirty minutes before the events began. That was hardly enough time to warm up for a very quick sprit halfway around the track much less an eight lap endurance test. That should have been obvious to the adults in charge by the end of the girls’ race. Sadly, to add insult to injury some of the coaches chided the long distance runners for being unable to prove their mettle regardless of what the heat was doing to their bodies. Of all people they should have been the most aware of the error of their decision, but they staunchly denied any problems when confronted by parents who were concerned by what had happened.

There will be other races for most of the kids, and they will learn and move on from the disappointment, but if the coaches don’t also learn a tragedy is waiting to happen. There is a reason that the 3200 race is usually the second to last event and it has a great deal to do with providing the athletes with time to warm up their bodies, and a consideration of the humid heat that reaches it peak in the shank of the afternoon. This travesty in timing should never happen again, and the coaches should be willing to admit the error of their ways.

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The Power of Prophecy

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As a teacher one of the things that I hated to hear from a student was, “I’m no good at math.” Even worse was hearing such a sentiment reinforced by a parent who insisted that nobody in the family had ever done well with numbers. I knew that such thinking created a self-fulfilling prophecy whose hold on the mind of the student was difficult to undo.

If we or someone who knows us convinces us that something, whether good or bad, is true about us we tend to react in ways that reinforce the thinking. In education it’s often called the Pygmalion Effect. Researchers consistently have found that it is possible to affect outcomes merely by continually making particular comments to individuals or groups. If that happens to be about a lack of math skills, for example, it becomes more and more likely that mediocre success or even total failure will result. As humans we tend to give up trying when we believe that our efforts are futile.

I have a grandson who is doing quite well at Texas A&M University where he is studying computing in the engineering department. His classes are quite challenging but when I recently asked him how he was doing he immediately stated that his expectation was to make all A’s and perhaps one B in his courses. I was pleased to hear that he has set up a positive challenge for himself which he believes that he has the capability of achieving. Even if he sent a curve he understands that he has what it takes to nonetheless be ultimately successful. Because all of the people around him also believe in him, his faith in his abilities is reinforced. The interesting thing is that success bears the fruit of more success and the prophecy comes true.

Most of the time I encountered just the opposite effect with far too many of my students. Somewhere along the way the teachers and other adults in their lives had convinced them that they were academically doomed. They would relate stories of educators who had called them lazy and insisted that they would be lucky to graduate from high school much less a college. By the time I got ahold of them they were beaten down and unwilling to believe that I might help them. I had to work very hard to convince them otherwise.

Self-fulfilling prophecies are not just about academics. We are capable of convincing ourselves that we are klutzes or even that we are unloveable. I had a friend who became certain that she was only attractive to abusive men, and so she quit dating altogether after a few tries at meeting men seemed to prove her point. Someone who is told that he/she is ugly eventually gazes into the mirror and sees only horror. I’ve heard parents telling their children that they were losers, and then they wondered what had happened when those same kids began to exhibit defeated behaviors. We are the product of all that we hear and think about ourselves. If the negativity is repeated often enough it becomes the insight that we use to judge our personalities, our appearance, our intelligence and even the way the rest of the world sees us.

For these reasons it is critically important for all adults to monitor the things that they say to young people. If an entire class is told again and again how lazy and lacking they are, they might just give up and play the role of which they have been accused. If a young person makes a mistake he/she feels bad enough, but when those blunders are brought up again and again by the people who are supposed to care, a whole new personality of defeat begins to form.

When I was in middle school I was not yet five feet tall. I remember a PE teacher setting up the equipment for track. She brought out hurdles and measured distances for running. The first time she asked me to perform a task it was to jump over the obstacle. In reality I was no doubt too small to leap as high as I needed to be to clear the bar. Instead I slammed into the frame, toppling the entire apparatus and slamming my face into the dirt. The teacher’s reaction was not to coach me or demonstrate how I might do  better next time. Instead she simply barked that I was the most nonathletic, uncoordinated person she had ever encountered and shook her head in disgust.

Hers was a prophecy that went into effect immediately. From that day forward I avoided athletic pursuits like the plague. I explained to anyone who would listen that I was an blundering klutz and every time I was chosen last for teams my feelings were summarily reinforced. It was not until college when a kindly coach kept me after class for private lessons in every imaginable sport that I realized that all I had ever needed was for someone to show me what to do. I never became an athletic star, but I at least felt less subconscious of my abilities. I did fine until I joined a volleyball team at a school where I was teaching, and in a competition one evening one of the members of our group yelled at me just like the middle school coach had done and all of the old angst came flooding back. It paralyzed me with fear of any kind of participation in a sport. Old prophecies are difficult to overcome without help and understanding.

It is important that we see development for what it is, a gradual progression that moves at different paces for different individuals. We are all fully capable of learning how to succeed at most things, but our rate of improvement will vary widely depending on the totality of our genetic makeup and the environments in which we live. If we are surrounded by adults who understand such things and then provide us with optimism and expectations that we will ultimately succeed we are likely to reach our goals.

Life is a combination of nature, nurture, hard work, and beliefs. The thoughts that we have and that we hear are perhaps the most powerful forces in determining our ultimate fates. For that reason it would behoove every single adult who is in contact with others, not just the young, to think before speaking. Those words and attitudes will either create genius or destroy potential. We have to always remember that making mistakes is as much a part of learning as mastery. When someone falls it is up to us to let them know that we still have faith that they will one day overcome. The prophecies that we speak should always be filled with optimism and positive expectations even when progress is slow.

A Great Destination

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It’s January and I have roses and azaleas blooming in my yard. Houston is a funny place. Some years the weather is like Florida or southern California. The temperature stays in the sixties and seventies for most of the winter and the plants are fooled into thinking that it is already spring. Now and again we actually get some ice and snow, but generally our winters are mild. It’s one of those lovely things that makes up for the heat of the summer, and it’s still just cool enough to allow women to wear their boots.

Houston was named a top place to visit by Forbes magazine. Lots of folks wondered why in the world anyone would choose our city as a destination. After all our roads are perennially under construction and the traffic can often be brutal. Most of us who live here take it for granted that nobody would come for the scenery with our flat as a pancake landscape. What we don’t seem to think about are some quite wonderful attractions that we have that might actually be quite appealing for visitors.

For some time now Houston has been ranked as one of the best foodie towns in the country. It competes nicely with New Orleans, New York City, San Francisco and Los Angeles. There are some who believe that the food here may even be the best in the country. We have some amazing chefs and they don’t just provide a meat and potatoes kind of fare. The diversity in our city brings cuisine from all over the world and innovations in cooking that make it worthy of a visit for anyone who enjoys fine dining at its best.

Of course it may seem ridiculous to think that anyone would want to visit H-Town just to eat, and that’s a good point, but there are still lots of things to do here. We have sporting events at the professional level year round and our universities provide additional athletic venues that are lots of fun. Our museums are wonderful and boast variety from science to medicine to space to modern art. It would take a week to visit each of them and the effort would be well worth it.

Speaking of the arts, our Alley Theater is world renowned and it’s not the only cast of players in town. There’s also the Houston Symphony, the Houston Ballet, and Theater Under the Stars. At any given moment there are great musicians and comedians playing in town at Jones Hall, the Reliant Center, the Toyota Center, the Smart Financial Center, Jones Hall, the Woodlands, the Wortham Center or the Hobby Center. Our universities also host plays and musical festivals which are of exceptional quality.

Shopping is world class as well with the Galleria attracting folks from all over the world and smaller places like Memorial City, Highland Village, or the Woodlands offering a wonderful experience in their own right. There are even outlet malls and quaint shops dotted all over the city and its suburbs. Houston has a number of Farmer’s Markets as well that offer everything from spices to pottery along with fresh fruits and vegetables.

A short trip of about an hour will take visitors to Galveston with its beaches, historical homes, and quirky shops. There’s fun to be had swimming, boating or just relaxing in the sun and sand. The seafood there has its own unique taste and ranks with some of the best to be found anywhere.

I think that those who are quick to make fun of Houston’s designation as a great place to visit forget about how fun a trip here might be. With the right planning a traveler can catch the Houston Rodeo or spend a day at the Nutcracker Market. We host quilt shows that feature exhibitions from all over the world. The Houston Garden Club Bulb Mart is a fall favorite along with some of the most glorious weather that the city has to offer.

Those of us who live here are always so busy that we don’t stop to think of how much there is to do at any given moment. For a newcomer the possibilities for fun and entertainment are almost endless. We don’t boast any mountains or grand natural wonders but our springtime Azalea Trail is breathtaking. A trip along Buffalo Bayou is a wonder. A day spent at Brazos Bend State Park is both educational and inspiring with its up close encounters with wildlife and its observatory aimed at the heavens. A drive through River Oaks is a fun as visiting the lovely homes in New Orleans.

I suspect that an out of towner would easily be able to fill a calendar with activities for weeks just with things I have mentioned and I haven’t even skimmed the surface of the many sights that we have here in Houston. I totally understand why my city was chosen as a great destination for anyone hoping to have a great vacation. In fact, I’d like to challenge Houstonians to try a “staycation” someday to enjoy what our great city has to offer.

I am the first to admit that Houston has its flaws but I have yet to travel to any place that is perfect. In the grand scheme of things Houston can be lots of fun and even provide a few nature activities for those who prefer the outdoors. It doesn’t take a great deal of imagination to find more than enough to do. 

Taking One For the Team

37176894_10160474349250431_736566670557970432_oIt all began in 1979 when the University of Houston played Notre Dame in the Cotton Bowl in Dallas, Texas. It was an unusually cold day and Notre Dame’s quarterback, Joe Montana, had the flu. He was so sick that he didn’t even come back on the field for the beginning of the second half of the game. My Houston Cougars appeared to be in the driver’s seat for most of the game even though Notre Dame made progress in the second half. With only a few seconds left in a game that seemed to be leaning toward a UH win, Joe Montana came back onto the field after downing some chicken soup. With only two seconds on the clock he threw the winning touchdown pass snatching victory from my university.

We had been at a watch party with our friends, Linda and Bill, and to say that our disappointment hung heavily over the proceedings would be an understatement, but back then nobody really understood the pattern that would slowly but surely reveal itself. At least nobody looked to me as a jinx on that day, but time would tell a different tale.My family began to notice that anytime I watched any kind of sporting event my team would ultimately lose, often at the last minute on a fluke play. Mostly I wasn’t enough of a fan to create a noticeable pattern right away, but now and again the same kind of disappointment that occurred in the long ago Cotton Bowl game would rear it’s ugly head.

Then came the 1983 NCAA championship basketball game between the University of Houston and North Carolina Sate. The Houston Cougars were ranked number one in the country with players Clyde Drexler and Hakeem Olajuwon. I was in a class with Cylde and he and I were members of a group slated to give a presentation together. He missed our assigned date to play in the big game where he performed well, but NC State was determined and as the final seconds counted down the score was tied. Just before the buzzer, North Carolina took a risky shot and walked away with the victory. Oddly I rarely watched such games but because Clyde was a classmate of mine, I took an uncharacteristic interest. The game that everyone thought would be the Cougar’s proud moment was suddenly stolen from their grasp.

After that I felt as though I had some kind of bad juju, an aura of negativity that in some strange way affected any team for which I cheered. The bad results began to pile up in evidence that I was a jinx, a jonah, someone who needed to be barred from games. I can’t even begin to recount the number of times that things turned out badly anytime I was actively cheering for a team in a crucial contest. At first my friends and relatives scoffed at the very idea that I might have some crazy power to turn the tide in athletic contests, but more and more often the results of my interest in such events lead to the inescapable conclusion that I was somehow bad luck.

I know it sounds totally crazy, but even the most logical and rational people that I know now ask me to stay away from even thinking about critical sporting moments. I had to attempt to ignore the Houston Rocket’s basketball games when they twice won the National Championship. I felt it my duty to give Hakeem and Clyde a fighting chance, and it worked.

Whenever a big game is on the line I go shopping, take a walk, read a book, watch a rom-com, or go to sleep lest I send my favorite teams into a tail spinning loss. Just last year I had to completely ignore the Houston Astros in their run for the National Baseball Championship. I had been a faithful fan since way back in the nineteen sixties and could honestly say that I had never once been to a game where the team won. When they made a run for the gold in 2005, my entire family banned me from even listening to the games  on the radio. Last year I made a point of pretending that they were not even in the running. Unfortunately I was so certain that they were going to take it all in spite of any bad karma that I brought them that I snuck several peeks of the October 31, game which sadly they lost. I completely ignored the winning game lest they go down in flames, and they finally locked up their world championship.

I often think that my life as a jinx is totally silly, and so I do experiments to prove that there is nothing to the theory that I bring some form of bad luck. With that in mind I decided to attend an Astros game when they were playing the last place Detroit Tigers. The Stros had beaten Detroit 9-1 only the day before and All Star pitcher Verlander was slated to be on the mound. I was certain that I would finally witness a victory and lay my negative reputation to rest. I settled in with a bag of peanuts and nothing but positive thoughts only to watch my team go down as the Tigers hit one homer after another.

My friend Linda was also at the game. She has been a devoted Astros fan for most of the season and she sent me a text noting that the guys were not playing like themselves at all. When I reminded her that I have never seen them win, she realized what was happening and jokingly suggested that maybe I didn’t need to attend or watch anymore games. Her quip was followed by others asking me to stay away.

Somehow it is my lot in life to be the local purveyor of bad luck for teams. I also have the reputation for bringing rain whenever I travel somewhere. Both ideas are based on the fact that for some reason these things actually happen over and over again. I understand the vagaries of probability quite well, and duly accept that the story of my association with sporting losses is little more than a coincidence. Of course I have nothing whatsoever to do with the crushing defeats that I seem to witness over and over again, but then again why should I take chances? If a team legitimately loses without me, I have a clear conscience, but why should I tempt fate? So I revel in the glory of wins after the fact. It feels just as good to celebrate after viewing the video of the replays as it would to be in the moment. It also saves me from guilt. Who knows, maybe I’m just a silly goose, but I’ll take one for the team just in case.

Becoming Our Personal Bests

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I was driving home in the dark after spending the evening helping my grandsons complete a Geometry test review. It had been a long day and I was quite tired so I needed some sound in the car to keep me alert during the fairly long journey. I keep my radio tuned to NPR and just as I had hope there was an interesting program on the air. All of the guests were speaking about the idea of giving humans a small nudge to motivate them to do something difficult. It seems that there is a right way to get people to take risks and a wrong way that makes them complacent and uncomfortable with trying new things. Unfortunately much of the parenting and guiding and teaching that we tend to do is often exactly the opposite of how best to inspire humans,

As a mom, grandmother and long time educator I found myself instantly fascinated with the topic, so I turned up the volume and listened intently to a parade of experts giving pointers on how to create adults who are willing to push themselves beyond their comfort zones. It seems that every single theory was grounded in the idea that making mistakes can be a powerful tool for learning as long as it happens in the right kind of environment. If the emphasis is on personal growth rather than ranking, an individual is far more likely to demonstrate a willingness to venture into uncharted waters. There is something in our human natures that wants to be adventurous, but we throw on the brakes of caution whenever we realize that we are being compared and judged. We don’t want to be embarrassed by our mistakes and so all too often we quietly give up rather than endure the pain associated with failure.

One of the guests discussing this issue spoke of an horrific childhood experience that she had with a teacher who seated children in the classroom in order of IQ, from highest to lowest. Aside from the personal humiliation associated with such an arrangement she noted that it created artificial barriers to learning in which those lowest in the ranking began to believe that they didn’t have a chance to improve or master new concepts. It also segregated the students from one another by making them believe that those at the front of the class were smart and part of an exclusive group and those at the end were hopelessly doomed to uninteresting lives. The woman who was subjected to this horrible situation still shudders at the psychological damage it did to her and her peers.

My own high school experience was not much better. We were grouped according to an entrance exam and previous grades. Each six weeks a list noting our class rank was posted on a bulletin board in the main hall. We gathered together each time it appeared to determine where we were in the order, trying not to look at the very bottom because we somehow understood that there was indignity associated with being last. To this day I shudder at the idea of such shameless and ignorant humiliation that the listing created and the fear that it planted in me.

As humans we are born with a willingness to try different things. As babies we innocently explore and develop. Nobody thinks it odd that each little one grows at his/her own pace. It is the natural way of things and generally there is no worry unless the child shows signs of some type of extreme difficulty. In those early years our curiosity is at a peak. We want to know about and try everything. Learning is natural and fun. It is only when we begin to impose the artifices of tests and grades and competitions that many children begin to waver. When they feel that they are being judged badly because they are not quite as good as their peers, they sometimes slowly become and less and less inclined to participate in the process. In fact, even those at the top reach a certain comfort level and sometimes stop exploring lest they fail and lose their status.

As adults we want to encourage our young to be the best versions of themselves and so whenever they succeed at an endeavor we tend to praise them not so much for the attempts as for the outward judgement of their accomplishment. In other words we celebrate a good grade more than we cheer on effort. We pin our hopes on winning rather than a willingness to try. There is a kind of invisible ranking by IQ or ability that destroys a young child’s natural instinct to try things out. It deadens their souls just a bit, and in the worst case scenario convinces them that their possibilities for life are severely limited.

Sometimes it has the most deleterious effect on those children who started out at the top. They become so accustomed to being the best that they come unglued at the first sign of a challenge. They question themselves and withdraw from the race. They choose easy pathways that allow them to maintain their status, but their interest in reaching higher and higher is stifled. This is particularly true whenever a child suddenly fails after a lifetime of seeming perfection. We sometimes neglect to show them how to rebound from disasters.

The world will no doubt always be competitive but during the formative years the ideal is to instill a growth mindset into our young. We must strive to praise hard work and progress as much as mastery. We need to break learning down into doable chunks and celebrate the achievement of reaching particular milestones as much as we do high marks.

I have learned from watching my grandsons in swimming and track that each effort that they make is measured in personal improvements that may be little more than a tenth of a second. The focus of competition is with themselves. They understand that by beating their own records they move closer and closer to besting those who run with them. Races are generally won with very small but important differences. My grandsons work hard to close the gaps and they begin with themselves. Even if they do not gain a medal, they feel excited when they learn that they have shaved just a bit more time off of their own records. Improvement is a slow but focused process that they keep chasing because they are willing to stay in the race.

We can do so much much better with our young, but for now it is a difficult battle as long as tests are used to rank them, their teachers, their schools, and their communities. We are killing the natural instincts and curiosity one mistake at a time. Instead of encouraging our children to develop a love of reading we force them to submit to comprehension tests having little to do with how we humans enjoy the written word. We make the world of mathematics terrifying and far more difficult than it needs to be. We mystify science and insinuate that only a select few will ever be bright enough to work with its principles. We categorize children before they have even had the opportunity to explore and enjoy the wonders of learning. By the time we are adults we have boxed ourselves into rigid mindsets from which few of us ever escape.

It’s time for an overhaul of how we guide and teach our children. We have the know how and potential to use our most precious resource to the fullest. We just need to begin.