I still remember the first time a teacher really joined my parents in pushing me to want to do my best. Mostly I’d been coasting through most of my classes – satisfied with doing better than others (instead of doing my best). I wonder who is pushing kids today to do their best? Who is coaching them to raise the bar of their own expectations?
It seems like everything is rewarded these days, to the point where very little is actually expected. Attendance awards, certificates of completion… I think I was in the first wave of recipients of the proverbial “participation ribbon”. I was in about 4th Grade competing on the swim team. I did ok, but was definitely not culling a lot of blue ribbons from the pool! While my little brother won almost every backstroke race he entered, I mostly took home these ugly purple ribbons that boldly labeled me a “participant”. (I have a theory that connects the genesis of Barney the dinosaur to the ubiquitous recycling of hordes of these purple “awards for showing up”… just a thought.) Who were they kidding? I didn’t feel better because I got to take home such a “prize”, I felt like a chump who didn’t belong with the real swimmers.
I could churn my short little arms and skinny little legs as hard and fast as I wanted to, my ribbons were mostly going to have high numbers (or “participant”) stamped on them. Then I discovered the long races. At every swim meet, there seemed to be a break time, where everyone just kind of sat around and did nothing. Long periods with no starting sounds, no cheering… maybe just a Popsicle and a wet towel to use for a bleacher pillow. One day I noticed that while almost everybody was sitting around, there were about 5 kids still in the pool – just plowing their rows back and forth in the water. These guys were doing what most of the rest of us wouldn’t do… the longest races… the hardest races. I decided that was what I was going to do. If I couldn’t swim faster than they could, I’d swim farther that they would. Suddenly, my ribbon collection was tinted blue. I was winning races.
But even that wasn’t because I was a great swimmer… it was because I entered races that almost no one else wanted to do. They were too hard. There was little competition. It’s easy to get the bronze when there are only 3 racers! Sometimes, you win by attrition… everyone else quits because it’s too hard.
We need to be challenged to higher expectations – not just for young people, but for all of us. Just showing up is too easy. You can coast through life if you want to and stick to the status quo. That’s exactly what a lot of people and churches do. But what if we didn’t? What if we refuse to settle for the ordinary? What if we decided that the status quo is not good enough?