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  • Writer's pictureCherie Calletta

Losing with grace: Only the strong need apply

In middle school, Cherie Calletta tried out for the cheerleading squad. (Courtesy Photo)

“… Lose something every day. Accept the fluster of lost keys, the hour badly spent. The art of losing isn’t hard to master.” – from “One Art,” by Elizabeth Bishop

Winning is the reason you play the game. If you’re in it, you’re in it to win it.

But the real test of character is not when we win. It’s when we lose.

It should go without saying that when we lose, we should lose gracefully, and offer congratulations to the winner. If we fail in that, if we refuse to shake the winner’s hand, if we stomp our feet and scream “Unfair. Fake. False result!” we just come off looking like a demented 2 year old who didn’t get that extra serving of ice cream cake. That’s a self-inflicted humiliation.

We can’t always win and not everyone is supposed to get a trophy just for showing up. That really sends the wrong message. If winning is to mean anything at all, it must be an authentic win.

There were a couple of painful episodes in my life where I just lost. Try as I might, I could not achieve the desired goal. There were many other times I “won,” or gained a reward or an accolade, but it’s the losses you remember the longest, I think.

I was in middle school the first time this happened. If you made the cheerleading squad in seventh grade, you were probably going to be on the eighth grade squad, and of course, the high school squad as well, when the time came.

Well, try as I might, practice as I may, I could not do a cartwheel, and Sister Whoeveritwasthatyear insisted that we do cartwheels.

The first year I tried out, I didn’t make it. So I practiced hard during that year; memorizing the cheers, learning the moves… and tried valiantly to do cartwheels. I think my friends were too nice to tell me: “Cherie, that is not a cartwheel! You look like a panicked turtle who’s flipped over and trying to right herself!”

None of my middle school friends ever said anything like that. It might have been better if they had, but they had better manners.

So at the next tryout time, for the eighth grade team, I went for it again. And failed to make the squad. Again.

In those days, parents did not think it was right or healthy (or even thinkable) to storm into their kid’s school and make enraged demands because the child did not get what he or she wanted, whether it was an A, or a spot on a team, a squad, or the main lead in the school musical.

What the teachers and coaches decided, went. There were no discussions, no threats, no bouts of confrontation and anger. If the teachers said, “We’re having a double cast,” there was a double cast. If someone didn’t like it, they kept that opinion to themselves. No houses were egged, no tantrums were thrown, no parents called upon to storm in like Ghengis Khan’s Golden Hordes taking Russia.

Where we are today did not come from nowhere. It came on incrementally, almost invisibly. The older teachers are the best resources for this, because we have a context that reaches back over decades. We know what the before looked like. We all know the “after.”

If you got a B, a C, or even anything lower, it was assumed that the teachers actually knew what they were doing, and you didn’t even dream of questioning it. Instead, the student was asked what he did wrong, and was expected to remedy the shortcoming all by himself or herself. So nobody, including me, and certainly not my parents, ever dreamed of barnstorming into the school to demand an explanation of why I wasn’t put on the squad or why I was failing math. Maestre locuta, causa finita.

We learn from our failures more than from our successes, because we learn to pick ourselves up and carry on. Our failures teach us perseverance, resilience and humility, and encourage us to try harder next time. Or else, take a different road, and succeed at that.

I didn’t try out again for cheerleading in high school. I figured it wasn’t in my skill set. And it really wasn’t. But I went to the football and basketball games and cheered along with the other students and followed the cheerleaders, who got to wear the cute sweaters, adorable pleated knee-length skirts and black and white saddle shoes. Oh, how I loved those shoes. But I never got to wear them, at least not officially.

I never got to be a cheerleader.

And I didn’t die from it.

There were other failures along the way. There were also wins. Far more wins than losses, in fact.

None of it killed me. I learned early on that when the thing you wanted passes you by, you pick yourself up and carry on. Maybe you try something else, like drama club. But you go to the football games anyway. You cheer for the team because that is just what people do.

To stay back, to be sullen, to stamp your foot and talk trash about the others who got what you wanted would have been a much greater humiliation than simply not making the squad. It’s called dignity. Self-respect. Not being a sore loser. I didn’t get angry, invade the school building, break the windows and beat up everyone who tried to get in my way.

This should not even be necessary to say, but unfortunately: it is today.

The one thing I am still most proud of to this day is that, thanks to Mrs. LaMonica, I was able to earn a B+ in Algebra II in high school. Nothing else has ever topped that yet. Not Phi Beta Kappa. Not delivering a paper at a conference. Nothing ever topped that B+.

My parents got her to tutor me and I did well. I worked harder than I have ever worked before or since, and I did well.

The thing that makes this so satisfying is that it was I who did well: I earned that grade. I did not get it because someone went in to bully a teacher or smash a window.

I did the work. I earned the grade.

If I was failing algebra, it was because I was failing algebra. With her youngest still kicking his feet in a highchair, Mrs. LaMonica fed him with one hand and helped me unravel the quadratic formula with the other, to the point where I could actually understand it and make some sense of things. Things eventually made enough sense that I wound up with a B+ for the year.

When I saw that, I smiled and said to Mr. Pancari, “I really worked for this one.” “I know you did,” he smiled. “I know.”

I didn’t ask why it wasn’t an A. I knew I got what I deserved, no more, no less.

That’s the thing that makes me not just smile, but beam proudly. All the other wins came easily. It’s the hard things that give you the most satisfaction because you have to work for them. And it’s the failures that make the successes so sweet.

I am glad things worked out the way they did. I’m glad my parents’ generation did not try to fight our battles for us. We learned to strive. If we lost, we learned to lose with grace. It’s a lesson everyone needs to learn—no matter who you are.

I’m still really proud of that B+ in Algebra II. And thank you, Mrs. LaMonica.

Cherie Calletta was born and raised in Hammonton. She graduated Saint Joseph high school in 1977, then graduated from Rutgers College in New Brunswick and went to Japan for four years to teach English as a foreign language. She later spent about five years in Germany outside of Frankfurt am Main. After several years in Charlotte, North Carolina, she returned to Hammonton in 2002, where she and her husband make their home.


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