Saturday, January 2, 2016

Climb Every Mountain.

I can't tell you off the top of my head exactly how many letters of recommendation I've written in seventeen years of teaching.  Between letters to colleges, potential employers, scholarship committees, and elite summer programs, I have amassed quite a collection of letters in my "Recommendations" file, and frequently scan the list of previous students, trying to find another of similar character or stature.   Most of the time, when writing recommendation letters, the recipient is entirely unfamiliar with the candidate, and it is up to the recommender (aka me) to introduce my exceptional student to them.

The same can not be said for letters headed to the pinnacle of Scouting achievement.  Climbing Eagle Mountain, to the rank of Eagle Scout, is a journey that truly begins with a single step.  Beginning as a tiny Tiger Cub, the mottoes are rehearsed, the derbies are run, the character is built -- all the while, the scoutmasters view each and every step, watching the refinement of the young man, and his character.  As a teacher, writing a letter of recommendation TO the scouts ABOUT a student hoping to achieve the highest rank, is particularly difficult -- honestly, what can I say about this fine young man that THEY don't already know?  Regardless of the challenge, writing the letter is both a privilege and an honor.  It also offers time to pause and reflect on the young man that that tiny boy, that I've known for years, has become.  

Today, I attended the Eagle Scout Ceremony for James. 

I first laid eyes on James at the Pennsylvania Association for Gifted Education conference.  He was four years old, half asleep in an umbrella stroller, after a day at the Philadelphia Zoo with his father.  His mother and brother were attending the conference, and this tiny blonde boy was introduced to me, barely able to keep his eyes open, let alone make eye contact or shake my hand.  "He'll be in your class soon!" I was told.  

And in short time he was.  mastering tasks, skipping grades, taking high school classes, while other kids his age were sitting in elementary school classrooms.   His interests are far-reaching, and so are his accomplishments.  He's a master musician, a scout, an historian who has gone to Nationals in National History Day competition.  He's spent 66 nights camping with the scouts, and earned several dozen merit badges.  And you know what the highlight of the ceremony for me was?

Seeing James admit to, and share, an unfinished, highly mangled, handwoven basket.

Climb Every Mountain.

Go ahead, cue the music from Sound of Music in your head.  (More than a few of us in attendance were subconsciously humming it, given the many references to the "path up Eagle Mountain." )   The journey to greatness -- any greatness -- is a single step.  (yada, yada, yada...)  And the other thing about that journey, which is rarely shown or discussed, is the unfinished, highly mangled, handwoven basket.  Those who know me well know that I am desperately trying to create an acronym out of UHMHWB that can serve as a grand motivational tool for others -- but even I know that won't catch on.  Still, I applaud James for sharing a failure in the midst of his celebration of achievement.
My friend, Seth, the author of Khembond's Corner, recently waxed poetic on this very topic:

"I hate to tell them, but failure is always an option and sometimes even a desired outcome. It builds resilience, a trait that is missing in the next generation. It builds grit. It educates us, if we allow it too. It provides necessary feedback. If we are honest we should be asking to push ourselves to the failing point just to make ourselves better."

I've spent most of my break reading Little Bets:  How Breakthrough Ideas Emerge from Small Discoveries, by Peter Sims.  Seeing James' basket today, served as a reminder to me of the importance of admitting to, and embracing, failure.  Sims' book illustrates the importance of this as well, in its study of some pretty powerful failures that motivated success for Steve Jobs, comedian Chris Rock, architect Frank Gehry, and the teams at Pixar.  The embracing of failure by each of these heavyweights has led to an entire study of the power of failure.

So James, congratulations on attaining the rank of Eagle Scout.  More importantly, congratulations on failing at basket-weaving -- and admitting it.  Don't throw away that basket.  Peter Sims may be writing about you in the next few years, and need pictures for his next book.  Meanwhile, enjoy the view from the top of Eagle Mountain.