Monday, May 3, 2010


I could have been a Braves fan. When people ask why I like the Chicago Cubs I tell them that I grew up watching Cubs games on WGN, one of the first cable "superstations". Back then Wrigley Field had no lights so all home games were day games. When I was still too young to be in the fields picking corn, I'd get to man the sales table and between customers I'd watch the games. I would go out and sell bushels of corn when cars pulled up and run back in to hear Harry Caray butcher a Venezuelan or Cuban player's last name.

But there were two "superstations" back then. The Atlanta Braves played on the other one and everyone around me loved the Braves. Why didn't I like the Braves? It seems the easy assumption these days is to say I am an optimist. The Cubs have not won a World Series in over 100 years. Each year they under-perform to the point of making September nearly unbearable and yet with each February I get excited about Spring Training and every April I find myself thinking that this could be the year.

Admittedly that does make me sound like an eternal optimist. But I'm not. Sure, I believe in positive thinking and I've seen the destructive power of negative thinking, but I have no problem being realistic. I say I'm a realist with a positive attitude - not an optimist - and maybe I like pulling for the underdog. During those early baseball fan years the Braves were consistently competitive. They won things and it would have been easy to pull for them, but it was more fun to pull for the Cubs. It was more exciting to think that "the lovable losers" would find a way to win. That story was more interesting to me.

The end of each semester brings a familiar internal struggle. As a teacher it's my job to make my students better artists. Wherever they are in talent and ability when they arrive in my room it's my job to move them forward. Some rise far above my high expectations and some, inevitably, do not. Of course I'm proud of my over achievers and I take a lot of pride in their continued successes at higher levels. However, my mind tends to dwell on the ones that got away.

For the last 7 years my classes have consisted mostly of college freshmen. I see all levels of talent and skill and a very high percentage of my Art majors will change their major twice before graduation. Not all of my students are great at Art when they enter college and some of those seem to have no intention of even trying to be great. The fact is there are some who just don't seem to care at all. Generally speaking I end up with a few students who do not intend to give their best effort.

Oddly, I love the challenge this presents me. Chalk it up to pulling for the underdog, but I find myself sometimes focusing extra time and effort on these students in an effort to help them succeed. I try to get a handle on their personality in the first couple of weeks. During that time I look for anything I can learn about what motivates them. Then I set about the work of using those means of motivation to see how they respond. Perhaps this highlights a weakness on my part, but any sort of positive response during this time encourages me to stay on the case. I try to be fair in my distribution of class time among students but I find myself on the long commutes thinking about a plan of action for a particular underdog or trying to find a different approach to see if it will have any more success. I end up spending a lot of time and energy on working to bring these students up. I figure that once they get their footing, they'll pick up the pace and do very well for themselves.

Sometimes it works. Sometimes the student is eventually willing to put the partying aside and realize that they need to seize this opportunity to learn as much as possible. Sometimes they'll shake off the procrastination and learn to be self motivated. Sometimes the student will come back years later and say, "You know, I hated you at the time, but I graduate in a couple of weeks and I just wanted to say thanks."
I don’t think anyone living now knows for sure, but I think this is what it would feel like if the Cubs won the Series.

Sometimes it doesn't work. And even when I feel I've done my best - even when I think I’ve tried every approach possible, failure still feels like failure. That long drive home after a final critique is usually a very quiet one. I wonder what I could have done to produce a different outcome. I wonder if I tried everything. I wonder if they'll ever get it. I wonder if next year could be the year.

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