I was in the middle of a game of bingo when equality struck.
The homeroom teacher of a grade one French classroom had given me little more than a stack of blank paper, and a sticky-note with the word “loto” written on it.
Being no stranger to the game myself (my Italian grandmother used to sneak me into bingo halls when I was a junior in high school), I felt confident creating a fun, interactive game that focused on numeracy, en français.
After helping my students make their cards, I began calling out the first set of numbers. In true bingo hall fashion, I started with a single row, followed by a double row and, eventually, the full card—something my grandma believed was reserved for non-Italians.
The students’ teacher had instructed me to have the winners write their names on the chalkboard so that, upon her return, they could receive a small prize. Just before the end of the period, a student raised her hand triumphantly and shouted, “loto!”
I walked over to her and found a full card. (In all fairness, she was not Italian. The conspiracy continues). Naturally, I congratulated her, and invited her to write her name on the board.
“Félicitations! Demain, Madame vous donnera un petit prix!”
Then I heard it. A shrill of anger and disbelief, backed by the three-word phrase that echoes in the corridors of every elementary school: “That’s not fair!”
Coming quickly toward me from across the classroom like high cholesterol for the elderly was a young girl.
“That’s not fair!” she repeated.
The sound of helicopter parenting took the room hostage.
“My mommy said that everyone has to win something because if not everyone wins, then no one can win!”
To my surprise, she had quickly gathered a group of supporters who, with dabbers for pitchforks, chanted, “Yeah! That’s not fair!”
I smiled and told the students that, during the week, they would most likely have another opportunity to play, and to win. Somewhat satisfied, or perhaps plotting to slash my car tires with their cutting stares, they walked away and sat down at their desks.
When the bell rang, the students moved onto their next class, leaving me alone in a room filled with the stink of disappointment. After I collected the bingo cards, I sat in the teacher’s chair and wondered.
Is this the kind of generation of students that we’re raising? Is “everyone’s a winner” something we just say, or do we truly mean it? And if we do mean it, what are the implications? Are we so obsessed with universal inclusiveness that we should dissolve the very notion of competition? Are we doing our students and children a disservice by sheltering them, continuously, from loss and failure? What will they do when a future employer tells them they were not the most successful candidate? How will they react when their college or university program liaison rejects their application? Are we becoming so increasingly scared of failure that we cannot even play a game of bingo?
I understand that the words “winner” and “loser” can present, for both children and adults, an uncomfortable dichotomy, a challenging binary of insecurity and precarity, but does that mean that we must always be reaching for mommy’s or daddy’s warm blanket? In an increasingly competitive society, how can we—or should we—teach students how to be humble “winners” and graceful “losers”?
I believe in a growth mindset that teaches students not to fear failure but, rather, to feel it, embrace it, and learn from it. Failure, for me, is an integral part of life, and an essential part of growth. It builds character and the desire to strive for more, not for others to receive less. I understand that luck and merit are wholly different, but if students cannot handle a loss in a small game of luck, how are they meant to manage loss in the big game of life?
But perhaps I am asking the wrong questions. Maybe I should be trying to promote an agenda of social justice and emancipatory, democratic education that dissolves the ability to win, for fear of the ability to lose.
I am all about inclusivity and fairness, but I see growing danger in parents and teachers championing a fictitious notion that everyone can be a winner at everything. With increasing societal pressures to perform—and to perform well—students and children, I think, should be learning how to cope with failure and loss, rather than pretending that neither exist.
I feel guilt. Sadness. Not for the girl and her army of protesters but, rather, for the (un)lucky winner, the would-be prize recipient who, before leaving for recess, asked me, with a gentle whisper, “Should I erase my name from the board if everyone is going to be mad at me?”
I applaud the desire to recognize “unfairness” both within and outside of the classroom but what, nowadays, is fair? How are we teaching students to understand equity, equality, fairness, and unfairness? I’m not asking that we raise a generation of capitalistic, masculinist “winners” or a self-deprecating, unmotivated generation of “losers,” but if a game of “loto” is viewed as a public injustice, how can we all be winners? How can we fill a full card with every try?
I’m sure my grandmother would like to know.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Gianluca Agostinelli is a K to 12 teacher in the Niagara Catholic District School Board. He is also a Graduate Teaching Assistant and Ph.D. student in Educational Studies at Brock University, where he earned graduate degrees in English Literature and Education.
This article is from Canadian Teacher Magazine’s Winter 2018 issue.