Notes on Synchro

Once upon a time, I took a summer session English class at the local community college. For five intense weeks we wrote short stories, personal essays, and research papers. It was a lot of writing. And reading. As a class, we reviewed each other's rough drafts, made suggestions, accepted criticism, and attempted to integrate the few cryptic notes our instructor wrote in our margins. Our instructor had an unusual style of grading, or so it seemed to me. We took no tests and received no grades all semester long - our only and final grade hinged on the portfolio of writing assignments we turned in at the end of the semester.

I almost dropped the class. I absolutely had to get an A in order to maintain a 4.0, as a perfect GPA was my ticket into the seriously impacted nursing program at our local state university. In other classes I could track my progress through test scores and graded papers all semester long, studying and working harder when necessary, coasting when I could in one class to focus on another. I raised my concerns in a phone call to my instructor, revealing my type A personality, and asking for some feedback regarding my writing. Cryptic as ever, she told me not to worry. So I wrote, and rewrote, and hoped she considered my writing worthy of an A.


I hadn't though about that class for years, but it came to mind last Sunday as I sat poolside and watched more than fifty synchronized swimming championship routines (that's a lot of time for a mind to wander). The swimmers had been practicing their routines several hours a day for over two months, and their success hinged on their final performance. All that work, distilled into three or four minutes, judged by 7 parent volunteers, and no way of predicting their final grade until the results were tallied and announced at the end of the day. The swimmers were completely at the mercy of the judges, just as I had once been at the mercy of my English instructor.


Our team did not do so well. After all the ribbons were handed out and rankings were announced, I turned to the man sitting next to me, the grandfather of a swimmer, and said, "Well, the biggest room is the room for improvement."

"What kind of positive bullshit is that? You must be a goddamned school teacher," he replied.

Yes. He really said all that.

Fifth place out of five teams is nothing to celebrate. Fortunately, there were only a few tears shed, and the championship results won't keep anybody out of college. We're just a recreation league after all. Perhaps next year we'll rise like a phoenix from this season's ashes.

My final grade on my English portfolio? An A+. But there's always room for improvement, so I keep on writing and rewriting. I'm no g**d****ed school teacher; I'm just a hopeful student who has finally learned that life doesn't hinge on final grades.


  1. Great insight, molly. It brings to mind the Indigo Girls song "Closer to Fine."

  2. AnonymousJuly 19, 2011

    I'm still stuck on the response you got from the grandfather. Really?

    I say you are one good (blankety blank) school teacher.

  3. yeah really he said that,what kind of grandpa is he for crying out loud..and hello I LOVE positive school teachers!! love,,I like your approach about the room!! youd make a great teacher :D

  4. AnonymousJuly 19, 2011

    I think I might have punched him. My daughter is doing synchro this year and SHE's teaching me so much. I thought she might get uber competitive but her attitude is mature and refreshing - she's enjoying it and just wants to have fun. There's a lot of serious competition at our pool and many of the parents are just oozing testosterone. Very ugly.

  5. thankfully life doesn't hinge upon grades or arbitrary systems of judgement. and i do hope your team rises from the ashes next year!

  6. You are a school teacher! Of sorts, right? I loved this. That grandpa cracks me up, although if he said that to my face I would have been shocked into being offended and then only later been able to laugh at it.

    Than goodness life doesn't hinge on final grades, thank goodness.

  7. Maybe not a school teacher but you're a great storyteller! There are some unpleasant people out there, but thankfully they're in the minority. They at least make for good tales to relate, and ways to reflect on our own values!

  8. I wish nursing was as hard to get in as that... It is way to easy here - standards are low I think... I am a nurse and saw people in for the wrong reasons... rather than they wanted to be there for the right reasons...

  9. Great story Molly... love the connection.

  10. Can I say that I just love that the world has crochety characters like that guy even if I totally disagree with them. I've made a note to myself to employ the biggest room is the room for improvement at the next remotely applicable opportunity.

  11. Are you sure you weren't sitting by that "s**t my dad makes up" guy?

    Your English class sounded pretty cool, except for the fact that you were on pins and needles all semester.

  12. Great post....Hope your daughter has similar reflections on this experience when she is further down the road of life.

  13. Ahhh, reminds me of my daughter's dancing. I always just tell her I am glad she gets up there and does it and I don't care what her score is. It is the process that is important. And if she doesn't fall down onstage, that is a plus! Love your posts, Molly.

  14. Oh! Did you see these? Fantastic photos from the synchro championships in Shanghai. I know you and A. will appreciate them! http://www.theatlantic.com/infocus/2011/07/synchronization/100109/

  15. P.S. That's the kind of crazy stuff I find on twitter!

  16. AnonymousJuly 21, 2011

    Great analogy, Molly. Maybe you have to be at the bottom to appreciate the top.

    (btw, i'm commenting as anonymous b/c I can't seem to comment on your blog anymore?) ~m

  17. Sometimes I just can't believe what people will say out loud... great post, and too bad for those who think positive is out of line. I bet he wouldn't say things like that during the depression years when hollywood was churning out feel good "positive" films to lift people's spirits in hard times. Jeez, what a grouch.


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