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“Challenge” • GATHER Talk by Dr. Scott Erickson

  • Head of School

On Friday, September 1, Head of School Dr. Scott Erickson delivered the first GATHER talk of the year – the first in a series of three on challenge, achievement, and competition.


And to get us started I have a poem by Shel Silverstein:

Listen to the MUSTN’TS, child,
Listen to the DON’TS
Listen to the SHOULDN’TS
Listen to the NEVER HAVES
Then listen close to me—
Anything can happen, child,
ANYTHING can be.

And when I get to one, gently raise your heads. Three, two, one.

Packed. House. This is great! Welcome back to school. It's great to see all of you here. I'm happy to see you students in particular. All back in the right place here on the PBS team. I'm excited about our new school year. And from what I've seen from all of you, I think you're excited too. Is that true?

(two light, single claps)

That wasn't very convincing.

(students yelling)

I was, right — Thank you, Geetha, you're excited, that's good. — I was certain you would be very excited about the new year. And all summer, my friends, I have been thinking and thinking and thinking. What am I gonna to say to everybody when we get back to school? And so I decided to focus on three topics in these first three GATHERs. After all of that thinking: Challenge. Achievement. Competition.

You're probably thinking, now hey wait a minute. We just had a great summer. We just got back. So Dr. Erickson, how about a nice, easy, happy talk. Like a talk on the semicolon, or the comma, or the exclamation point, or the question mark like I have done before.

But today I want to talk about challenge because I need your help. I really need your help. Your teachers and your parents have already been asked for their help too. I'd like us, as a school, to expand our understanding about what it means to be challenged in school. How we can be open to those challenges. And how we can learn from the challenges that are around us in school every single day.

So as a starting point, listen up. I have a definition of challenge to get us started. Here it is:

“There are twists and turns. You will be driven off course. It's not a straight line.”

And your job is to embrace challenge. Learn to navigate that course. And never give up. Never give up. But first, let's do some thinking about the problems with challenge. There are problems.

Problem number one: We take previous challenges for granted. Walking, for example. For those of us who are able to walk, and that's not everyone, We take walking for granted, but if you watch your younger sister learning to walk, it's a challenge. She falls down. She loses her balance. There are many twists and turns to that walking process. It was a challenge for you too, but now you take walking for granted.

How about talking? You know how to talk. You are very talkative. Believe me. You know how to talk. But if you watch a younger brother learning to talk, it's a challenge. It's hard work. He makes mistakes. He's driven off course. And it was a challenge for you too, when you were learning to talk. I know that for a fact. But now, we take talking for granted. Don't we?

Problem number two: Not only do we take things for granted; we can forget about previous challenges. For example, I can milk a cow by hand. Can you? But get this. — Oh, you can? — Get this. I can milk a cow by hand and squirt the milk into a cat's mouth 10 feet away. Seriously. I can do it.

Thank you, colleagues. Thank you. Thank you.

And I want you to know something. When I learned how to milk a cow, it was a challenge. But I've forgotten about it; I've forgotten about that challenge.

Here is another challenge I've forgotten about: I learned Swedish when I was living in Sweden. It was a huge challenge deciphering all those words. Trying to get the sounds right. Learning the vocabulary. There were many twists and turns. Some of my legendary, big time mistakes produced legendary, big-time laughter from all of my friends. It was a challenge to learn Swedish. But I don't live in Sweden, I've forgotten about it.

So problem number one: we take it for granted. Problem number two: we forget about some challenges. Problem number three: We sometimes, with challenges are tempted to give up. Too often, people think that challenge is negative. That it's a bad thing. They think that challenge is being stumped. And then you throw up your hands in frustration. Or you decide that the challenge is unattainable. You can't do it. So you stop.

Last spring one of you said to me, “Dr. Erickson, I'm an ‘L’. At least I'm working hard to be an ‘L’ and by the end of the week I'm not going to be a ‘K’ anymore.” Now that energetic proclamation is about reading levels. And if you stop when you faced a challenge, you will never go from reading level ‘K’ to reading level ‘L’ to reading level ‘M’, will you? You have to press forward. You can never give up.

So, back to our definition. There are twists and turns. You will be driven off course. It's not a straight line, these challenges. But your job is to embrace the challenge, learn to navigate the course, and never give up. Now this definition is well over 2,000 years old. I did not do a Google search. I did not consult a dictionary. I went, my friends, to an old story about a man named Odysseus.

It's in a — Yes that's his name. Great name, right?

Odysseus is the main character in a poem called The Odyssey. Here are the first two lines of the poem, so listen up, the first two lines: ”Sing to me of the man, the man of twists and turns, driven time and again off course.” The man of twists and turns. Driven time and again off course. And so on, for 500 pages.

Now. Homer is the poet, and Odysseus is “the man of twists and turns.” He's on a journey. Probably better described as a Star Wars type adventure. He faced, many challenges. There was bad weather. Mean people. Storms. Shipwrecks. Poverty. War. Deception. Threats all around. Those were his twists and turns. He was frequently driven off course and had to get back on course. Yet, Odysseus did not give up.

And he returns home a hero. He gets a hero's welcome when he comes home. He's not a hero because he had a successful adventure. He's a hero because he did his job. He embraced challenges. He learned to navigate the challenging course and get back on course. He was a problem solver. He found solutions. He collaborated with others to tackle the challenges.

Like Odysseus, I experience twists and turns too. Sometimes that happens when I go to the gym to exercise. I decided to throw a new twist into my life by doing something called “step class.” It requires concentration. It requires coordination. And it requires big-time stamina. There are many challenging moves. At the end of the workout, I feel like I've been twisted and turned at least a dozen times. I've been tempted to give up and revert back to that very unchallenging exercise that I did before. But I choose challenge. I choose challenge. And my job is to embrace the challenge. Learn to navigate the difficult challenging course and never give up.

Boys and girls, students, that's your job too. Like Odysseus, sometimes you will not choose the challenges on your PBS learning adventure. There might be a complex math problem. A difficult reading exercise. A science experiment that's not going your way. Your job, embrace the challenge. Navigate that challenging course. And never give up.

Like Odysseus, sometimes you will choose the challenges on your PBS learning adventure. Maybe it's a project to make you a better coder. Maybe you're making a new friend, or maybe you're pushing yourself in the Presidential Fitness Challenge at PE. Your job, embrace the challenge. Learn to navigate the course. And never give up.

So my friends, I want PBS to be a learning adventure just like Odysseus. I want your time here to be full of twists and turns. I want there to be shipwrecks. I want you to be thrown off course. I want you to have big challenges.

Why is that? Because there is nothing, absolutely nothing, to be gained from an easy straight line. You will be much better With the twists and turns.

So here's your job. Embrace the challenges, whether you choose them or not. Learn to navigate the course through those challenges. And never give up.

Thank you

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