Posted on May 5, 2011


Field Day. Is there anything that conjures more keenly in the grownup imagination the joy of impending summer than a day spent in the Olympic games so purely loved by children? Where we live, this perfect day is called the Hershey Track Meet. Three schools come together, each grade on a day, and let children run. Even more perfect yet, someone keeps score.

What could be more inclusive? Everyone can participate in three events. They run heat after heat of fresh kids one-fourth, halfway, and all the way around a big asphalt track, and someone has a stopwatch and writes their time down. In a field nearby kids line up and pitch softballs just as hard as they can throw, and someone yells back a number. How grownup! Their performance is recorded! Their skills can be valued against each other. None of this E for Excellent and S for Satisfactory – there is a first, second, and third place, and it’s exclusive. They know exactly where they stand.

I’m old enough to be uncomfortable with this. I don’t think real life works out that way. There is no first place for the things that matter most. God has structured a game that he wants everyone to win. We’re continually reminded that “the race is not to the swift.” And even in business, the field we’re told does have winners and losers, there are a lot of people playing who aren’t placing, and they’re bringing home paychecks and making a difference without a blue ribbon. I’m fiercely defensive of them, and of the way that kind of system works.

But we do like numbers. Somehow it means something to hear how many feet you can throw a softball and how fast you can run a quarter. It means something to know how much you earn or how many clients you serve or how much something costs, because then we have the illusion that we can compare, and thereby discern, value. In fact, we don’t even have to engage our conscious to do it – ordinal placement is knee-jerk, and we know the minute we hear two numbers which one is “better.” Hmmm.

We have a long talk before field day every year. I tell them that their value can never be reduced to a number, that I don’t care what their grade card says if they aren’t nice to our next door neighbor or don’t read with interest or finish what they start. I don’t want to have a place on that stand at the track meet over the numbers “1” or “2” or “3” – or not – change how they think of themselves. They roll their eyes. They want on the stand. They’re human.

I go to the track meet and my heart pains for the girl running distinctly back from the pack, or the boy who nails the ball several times in the grass just a few feet in front of him. I point that person out and tell the kids to find a way to say something genuinely appreciative to the person who lags, as well as the person who wins. I’m neither saint nor bleeding heart, because I’ve had my fair share of both wins and losses and learned equally from both, and wouldn’t deny anyone the chance to do either. But that doesn’t make it any easier in that moment for the kid who comes in last.

Interestingly enough, my youngest daughter misses a recognition every year. It’s like a tradition now. This year she threw the softball 107 feet, significantly further than the girl who won first place. Last year it was a 200 meter time that wasn’t recorded and the year before it was something else I’ve forgotten. I was there for each, and I know what she did and how confusing it can be for those recording. I wondered how she felt about it. She just shrugged her shoulders. It’s disappointing at eleven to know you could have been standing over the “1” and instead you were sitting in the bleachers.

I asked her how it felt to know she could throw a softball that far. She brightened up and her face shone with confidence. “That’s the thing to keep down deep in your soul, girl!” I said. Not that she’s better than anyone else, but that she can do things. My youngest son also placed in the softball throw, but he wasn’t even there for the placements on the numbered blocks. His sister brought home his certificate and he was thrilled. He threw the ball, but until someone put a number to it, he didn’t know it was “good.” I asked if he was sorry to miss standing on the blocks to come home with me and do yard work. He screwed up his face and said, “Heck no.” Too boring. But the certificate is folded in his pocket, valid proof that he can do things.

Someone will always throw the softball further or run faster, make more or do more, or in some way have a number that can be compared. It will mean nothing, “sounding brass and tinkling cymbal,” and we will have to work to not be distracted by it. Keeping score is a two-edged sword, encouraging us when we do well and discouraging us when we lag, and either of those is very distracting. I think the goal is to let go of the score as soon as we can do the thing without a number attached because numbers suck the life out of things. Kids are natural runners – how sad if they forget that.

A king was once told that he had been weighed, measured, and found wanting. I doubt anything limited to integers found its way onto those balances. I have a feeling God’s weights and measures don’t run in ordinal numbers. Sometimes I don’t know what to do with a world whose measures do.

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