RICHARDSON: Excellence — not mediocrity

March 23, 2014 

There is a letter on Page 5D, “Mediocrity first,” that really got to me. The letter writer, John G. Kelley, writes fairly often and writes well. He’s well educated and has a family that values education. I respect his opinions. I don’t always agree with him, and I hope he doesn’t always agree with me. But a sentence in his latest letter grabbed me. Addressing the Bibb County Board of Education, he writes, “Please don’t strive for excellence in our system until we first obtain mediocrity.”

To me, that’s a hell of a note that goes against every fiber of my soul. My junior high football coach, Ben Parks, never told us to strive for mediocrity. He didn’t yell -- and he was always yelling -- “I want you to be mediocre.” When he had us run the four miles from the junior high to the high school every weekday morning, he didn’t say, as he ran in front of us, “Let’s get to mediocre today.”

When “Big Ollie,” all 6-foot-8-inches and 300-plus pounds slacked off, he didn’t bellow out in the locker room at halftime, “Ollie, I want you to be mediocre.” No, this little fireplug of a coach picked Ollie up by his shoulder pads and pinned him against the wall. Yes, all 300-plus pounds of him. We ran behind “Big Ollie” the rest of the night.

I worked for a precursor of Wal-Mart in Houston called GEMCO. The stores, which were ahead of their time, featured dry goods, grocery, lawn and garden products and everything else you see in today’s Wal-Mart. I managed the lawn and garden section. My boss had signs in his office that explained his method of measuring employee performance:

• Expected High Standards.

• Above Expected High Standards.

• Failure.

Mediocre wasn’t on the wall.

Did Coach Bob Hoffman get his Bears into the NCAA Big Dance by preaching mediocre? Did his team beat Duke by claiming mediocrity before excellence? I flatly oppose the idea that our school system should strive for mediocrity. That’s been the problem in Bibb County for as long as I’ve lived here. Mediocrity is not acceptable, and I would oppose any superintendent who came in here and said, “We won’t strive for excellence until we reach mediocrity.” I remember the clamor when the district had as part of its mission statement that, “each student demonstrates strength of character and is college ready.” Some in the community suggested that we should shoot for 40,000 feet rather than for the moon.

One of the biggest issues we have in education is low expectations. If we only expect mediocrity, that’s all we’ll get. Successful school systems put plans in place to produce excellence, and students have shown, time and again, that they can meet those expectations.

Whether you are a fan of the Macon Miracle -- and I am -- you have to agree the strategic plan wasn’t designed to produce mediocrity. The implementation of that plan will continue to be difficult because we’ve accepted mediocrity as the norm. Remember the brouhaha over the instruction of Mandarin Chinese. It was said our children were not capable. “They can’t learn English,” some said. We found our children were more capable than we thought.

Let me be clear. We have accepted mediocrity in this county since integration. Gone are the Gloria Washingtons and others of her ilk who wouldn’t accept anything but the best. Did teachers and administrators at Lanier accept mediocrity? Of course not. Why should we?

I want a superintendent who will not give excuses or accept excuses. It’s easy to point fingers at the raw product. It’s easy to throw parents under the bus. All I’m asking is that when students enter our classrooms there are capable, highly trained professionals waiting there ready to deal with whatever issues those students might present. I want those children to see teachers and administrators who recognize excellence, expect excellence and will not accept less. When that happens, watch our children shine. If it doesn’t happen, failure is the only sign left on the wall.

Charles E. Richardson is The Telegraph’s editorial page editor. He can be reached at 478-744-4342 or via email at crichardson@macon.com. Tweet @crichard1020.

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