Before retiring a few years ago, I taught high school chemistry for over 30 years. One of my duties was organizing and carrying out our school’s science fair. I shepherded between 70 and 100 students through their individual research projects each year.
I don’t remember the projects as much as the kids who accomplished them.
One young woman, I’ll call her Beth, completed a project about stress and how to ameliorate it.
Even before I had Beth in class, I recognized her from running past her house on one of my regular routes.
Beth lived in a run-down dwelling that sat squarely in the flood plain of a small creek. After every heavy rain, a sump pump emptied water from the basement of her house into the street.
Beth’s dad would often be sitting shirtless on his cluttered front porch, drinking a beer even if I ran past their house first thing in the morning. Or in the afternoon. Or evening.
Her mom drove a battered mini-van and wore abundant makeup. Half a dozen young children in various stages of disarray followed her around. She was loud but friendly, often greeting me as I ran by.
Beth was not in a top-level science class, but she was determined to do a project, and I was determined to help her. Our school made a deal with science fair students: win an award at the regional science fair, and your final exam in science is optional.
“Mrs. Hess,” she confided, “I have to win an award at the science fair. There is no way I will pass the chemistry final exam.“
I was concerned that she was correct. Beth was a responsible student, always turning her work in on time and coming in for extra help when needed. Chemistry, however, was not her strong suit. She was passionate about art.
To win an award at the regional science fair, students needed to submit a top-notch project. The competition was fierce. I was skeptical about Beth’s ability to pull it off.
She had done a good job on a project based on a simple concept. She understood her project and could easily talk about it, which was in her favor. She was competing against projects far more sophisticated than hers, however.
Before the fair, I coached her. “Beth, use your artistic talents to make your board stand out. Do everything that you can to draw attention to your display.“
I advised her to focus on talking to the auxiliary award judges. Several local organizations sponsored awards. I thought that was her best bet to score a prize, rather than trying to win one of the categories such as Behavioral Science or Health and Medicine.
On the day of the science fair, Beth showed me her display board. It was magnificent. A cardboard woman who appeared to be extremely stressed rose from behind the trifold, her curly hair shimmering. Electric lights illuminated individual sections of the display, and large arrows directed viewers’ attention to lab highlights. The board could not have been more eye-catching.
At the award ceremony, Beth (and I) sat with bated breath as they announced the auxiliary awards. When Beth’s name was called and she stood to walk to the stage and accept her prize, her mom whooped with joy. I tried to give her a high-five, but Beth enveloped me in a bear hug.
She had done it.
We love success stories, and Beth’s was a heart-warmer.
But how do we define success? And is the constant striving for success beneficial?
I taught many students who completed exceptional projects and learned a lot of science in the process but won no awards. They were also successful.
In education, teachers are counseled to look for evidence-based outcomes of learning. Administrators want to know that what is happening in the classroom works. Science fair awards are high-profile accolades that attract good publicity.
But I didn’t teach outcomes. I taught kids.
Sometimes important learning takes place that is not easily measured.
How do we quantify the development of self-confidence? How can we assess learning to break a huge project into smaller, manageable slices to accomplish it? How do we assign a number to the evolution of trust, the ability to overcome obstacles, or the appreciation of the importance of hard work?
Education often happens in a three-steps-forward-two-steps-back kind of way.
As Father Gregory Boyle says, “Embracing a strategy and an approach you can believe in is sometimes the best you can do on any given day.” Father Boyle is a priest who works with gang members in Los Angeles.
Success comes in many forms. Some are so quiet we may miss them if we focus solely on the flashy medals and trophies awarded by external judges.
Sometimes success comes from the simple act of being true to ourselves. Sometimes we are successful if we maintain our hope and faith in a tumultuous, fractious world. Sometimes success looks a lot like compassion or love.
Don’t get me wrong, success stories can inspire and encourage us. We all need a rousing success story now and then. They are good for morale.
But we all would do well to consider the words of Mother Teresa on the topic of success: “We are not called to be successful but faithful.”
You can find the places I link up here.