First Row, First Seat

JACK L. LEVIN

November 02, 1993|By JACK L. LEVIN

This fall my 6-year-old grandson started school. It was almost a non-event for him and the family. He is very blase about it. When I ask him, he replies that he likes school -- especially gym -- likes his teacher and classmates. To him, it was all dull routine. To me, 75 years ago, it was a time of terror and travail.

Daniel entering the lion's den and a death-sentenced convict being strapped into the electric chair had no anxieties worse than mine as a pupil on the first day of school.

I saw every new and former classmate as a contender for the first row, first seat.

In the classroom arena I had to struggle against all comers, and the teacher was the stern, impassive judge who would decide whether I could live or die -- remain the apple of my parents' eye, or lose their admiration and affection.

Nobody planned it that way; that's just the way it worked out. My mother's education ended with the eighth grade. My father's ended after the second, when -- at age 8 -- he went to work in a Pennsylvania coal mine, as one of the ''breaker boys'' who straddled chutes all day, separating shale from the coal as it rushed down between their legs. Moving to Baltimore with his family when he was 12, he sold newspapers, then drove a team of Adams Express horses on a delivery wagon. At 17, he lied about his age and entered the Navy. After a four-year hitch, he married and supported his family in low-paying jobs.

He made clear to me, verbally and physically, his ferocious determination that I do well at school. He, my mother and grandparents showed that my scholastic achievement was their main source of pride and joy. That was why I pursued the first row, first seat as if my life -- and theirs -- depended on surpassing my classmates.

It took many decades to recover from that early competitive pressure. I wonder whether competition or cooperation should be the goal of early childhood education and whether a combination of both is possible.

My father had learned from his own experience, and he constantly impressed on me, that ''it's a dog-eat-dog world.'' Advocates of competition go along with Vince Lombardi's classic dictum to the Green Bay Packers: ''Winning isn't everything; it's the ONLY thing.'' George Allen, the former Washington Redskins coach, put it this way: ''Every time you win you are reborn. Every time you lose you die a little.'' A celebrated basketball coach said: ''Defeat is worse than death because you have to live with defeat.''

Long before any of these philosophers was born, I had followed their philosophy. The first row, first seat was where I had to be; any other seat was defeat, disaster and despair.

The drawbacks of competition in the classroom did not trouble me until I had grown up. They were described by David W. Johnson and Roger T. Johnson of the University of Minnesota in their book, ''Learning Together and Alone.'' They pointed out that many educators, psychologists and writers in the Sixties challenged the notion that competition must be an inevitable part of American education; many students experience failure. They refer to ''the subversion of intrinsic motivation for learning,'' because ''in competition one learns to win, and knowledge that does not help one win is a waste of time.''

The Johnsons decry the joy taken in others' mistakes and failures, which I distinctly remember in school; their failure increased my chances of success. Without victory, I feared that I had no value. I lived with fear of rejection, almost constant apprehension and anxiety, and with concealed antagonism toward a classroom of rivals.

In the fourth grade, our family moved ''uptown'' and my world collapsed. The class I entered in the new school was far ahead of the one I had left. My chances of wresting the first row-first seat from its diabolical occupant glimmered only faintly. The new teacher detected my panic and devoted herself to bringing me up to class level. With her help, I was able to sail back into that first row-first seat. I will never forget that teacher, Miss Naomi. She was my first love, my guardian angel, my savior from a fate dTC worse than death.

Not until I left elementary school did I realize that my parents -- despite their clear desire for me to excel in school -- would have accepted and loved me even if I had not been Number One.

And not until 20 years later, after recovering from the duodenal ulcers caused by my competitive frenzy, did I discover the quiet satisfactions of cooperation with my peers. Working together with others toward common goals in several anti-fascist, civil-rights and civil-liberties organizations, I learned that no man -- or boy -- is an island, and that the first row, first seat is one of the loneliest, bleakest islands of them all.

Jack L. Levin is a Baltimore business man.

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