At the end of recess last Friday, I blew the line-up whistle. The scramble began. It took only one child switching from walk to run and then the pandemic spread. In an instant I had twelve students dashing across the playground to be first.

Several boys showed remarkable cutting skills, slicing in front of their classmates from the side or doing the tried and true shove-and-cut. I sent the daredevil dozen back across the yard and told them to try again,

“Walk all the way this time.”

First place in line. First picked for kickball. First in the door. Coming in first, even in small ways, matters. Kids get this fact even if no one tells them so. So, the scramble for first is a matter of instinct, linked to the need to survive.

The more you come in first, the better you are thought to be. Fastest, smartest, strongest, most popular, most resourceful, and even meanest – all of these get their own forms of medals. Two recent examples reinforced this common perception:

Yesterday, a group of fifth graders in the after school program got invited to a pick-up soccer game with a school down the hill. Even before this no-stakes match, one of my students mentioned a boy named Enrique. He knew of him from the weekend league and the same name had come up in the parents’ pre-game chatter.

I decided to watch the game.

“Mark him,” I heard our coach say as the game started. I knew who he meant. Sure enough, the kid was fast. In a bit of a twist, the number 2 was embossed on his game jersey. And he was skilled! He dribbled the ball around the fullbacks, took out our players with slide tackles. We didn’t have a chance.

His team won, 5 to 0. For this ten year-old, the scorecard no one kept would have held all of the required information.

So, what’s this first-at-all-costs thing about when you break it down? What if the hunger for first place came from the fear of getting left behind. What if someone suggested that the long (and better) game was in learning how to navigate second? Who would buy that?

My guys, led by a serious and sweaty ten year-old named Benjamin, made the losers walk up the hill. All of our guys were quiet. “You guys did great.” No comment. “You all never played as a team before.” Silence. “We’ll do a re-match next week.”

“I don’t care about losing.” Benjamin spoke. “I just don’t like Enrique. I hate it when he plays on the weekend, too, and he’s on my team. He has to be first in everything.”

Second isn’t such a bad place to be. You get to learn about yourself when you have to endure a loss. You grow when you reach for the top but miss.

I want my kids to be civil. I ask them to pick up their fallen teammates and I teach them to say sorry when they are wrong. I am asking them to acquire the grace of second-place. I will bet that when they come back a second time, they are wiser, more intuitive, and maybe even more valuable to the rest of us.

May I suggest we celebrate second place, too? Victory comes from ruling over inside voices that tell us we’re not good enough if we’re not first. Think of the strength you need to get up, move on, be second and be strong!


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