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James Gets a Grip on Losing: A Lesson for Today

By Julie Letofsky
I’ve been thinking a lot this past week about James, a child in my second grade class years ago. James loved recess more than anything that went on in the classroom. Basketball, soccer, even just tossing a football – James lived for these activities. He was hyper-competitive; he HAD to be the winner of every playground game. He HATED losing.
Every day, James came in from recess red-faced and angry. He’d come up to me and start in on his litany of complaints: who cheated, who broke the rules, who did something to offend him, and why HE really won the game. And every day, I’d listen and try to help James solve his problems. I spent a lot of time on the playground observing, shooting baskets with James, organizing games for him and small groups of classmates.
During one of our talks, James opened up. He said, “I don’t have any friends.” I said, “Sure you do, James. I’m your friend.” James rolled his eyes. I said, “Sarah is your friend. She plays basketball with you almost every day.” “One friend,” said James, “Big whoop.” It was one of those many times as a teacher when I had to stifle my smile and continue seriously. “Well, let’s work on that, James.”
And we did – all year. We discussed feelings during in-class meetings; we read books and sang songs about friendship; we used materials from every character-building program I’d ever learned about over the years; we acted out scenarios with puppets. James hated the puppets – he told everyone they weren’t using them right. He LOVED the books, however, especially How to Lose All Your Friends by Nancy Carlson. He wore the pages to tatters on that one during the year.
I did not invent this combination of activities; primary teachers use them every year to help children with their social and emotional development. But for James, these activities were essential…and they helped him. James was still hyper-competitive, still hated losing, but he went through a process with me and his classmates to help himself be a better sport, better at making friends, better at handling the frustrations and disappointments of his little boy life.
Hypercompetitive, has to be the winner, hates losing, has a litany of complaints, insists he won every game.  I imagine you’re catching on to my line of thought here – just substitute “Donald” for “James.” James, however, was 7, not a grown man and a leader of the free world. James accepted help from a person who could help, even when he was upset; I don’t know that Donald seeks productive help from anyone. James did, in fact, have friends who helped him learn and grow; not sure if Donald does. James learned that complaining and accusing did not turn losses into wins; rather, he learned some strategies to come to grips with issues, to handle both winning and losing gracefully. Donald? I can only hope he quickly learns some strategies to come to grips with his issues.
I came across that tattered book this summer as I cleaned out 33 years of “teaching stuff” upon my retirement. I thought of James and how much he loved the messages of that story. I laughed as I recalled his “Big whoop” comment and I smiled remembering his inimitable spirit. I thought about him again this week. He would be a 30-year-old man now. Because he learned to come to grips with anger and frustration when he was young, I imagine he is living a successful life. Maybe he can give Donald a call.
Julie Letofsky recently retired after teaching young children in Arizona public schools for 33 years. She enjoys writing about the amazing things that occurred as she worked with children to become readers, writers, problem solvers, and decent people. She is a three-time National Board Certified Teacher, Early Childhood/Generalist.

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