The Art of Losing

June 17, 2024

Somewhere in the second year of my tenure at St. Johnsbury Academy, I was reading what we call the “late announcements” in our daily morning meeting, and at the last minute I decided to skip one. These announcements are mostly the scores and outcomes of our athletic, academic or arts contests –the times of track athletes, the successful Latin translations, the high numbers of mathletes, the points of gymnasts, and all the goals, saves, strikeouts, and home runs tallied over the previous days and reported by coaches and advisors. Sometimes they include triumphs like concerts, Poetry Out Loud Champions, musicals, and community service. They are “late” in the sense of “late-breaking,” so I seldom have time to review them before I read them out.


That morning I remember clearly that as I read the late announcements, I came to news of a particularly devastating loss–I can’t remember in which sport–of something like 21-0. It was not editorialized, as losses sometimes are, as in: “the girls fought valiantly against a beastly team from Hogwarts, but despite falling twenty-one to nothing, they held their heads high…” or “the boys jumped a division in lacrosse and both goalies had COVID, but despite falling twenty-one to nothing they were victors in sportsmanship…” The score was simply stated, with that “0” gaping like black hole.


So, at the last moment, I made the decision to skip it. In fact, I decided from that day to report only our victories–after all, we didn’t announce the students who missed making the honor roll, or who flubbed their lines in the play (not that I can recall any of our actors doing this, which is itself pretty amazing). My hope was to spare our students the deflation of placing their losses–especially the rough ones–in the spotlight first thing in the morning.


I don’t know how long it took Chip Langmaid to come into my office and say, with characteristic élan: “What, we’re not losing anymore?” Chip was the legendary science teacher, advisor, mentor, proctor, and coach whom St. Johnsbury Academy lost tragically this week after 35 years of devoted service. As we have been saying here for the last few days: Chip had hundreds of children in his students and athletes.


And that day he had some choice words for me about the educational mistake of leaving the community with the impression that all we did was win–or more aptly, that we didn’t see the value in sharing our failures along with our successes.


Of course, when I heard this, I wondered what in the world I’d been thinking. From that point we asked coaches to include some context with their reports–whether on wins or losses–and I began again to read them all.


In this moment when we are grappling with losing him so suddenly, so unexpectedly, I find beauty in the fact that Chip Langmaid understood the ways that these moments of loss are the ones without which we cannot be whole. Indeed, he clearly insisted, as a teacher, mentor, and colleague with integrity, that losing usually teaches us more than winning does. Losing isn’t losing when you have supported and believed in your classmates and teammates; when you have tried hard, and then harder, and prepared together as well as you can. When you’ve done these things, winning and losing alike are gifts, the celebration of which he reminded me not to deprive our students.


I imagine he might share, with his generations of students and colleagues, that even losing him will have its gifts–as we reach out to each other in grief, and in understanding that we are probably stronger than we think we are. I think he would be intensely moved by the ways that his community has come together to support one another, how his teams have lifted each other up. And while his is a loss we never wanted to share, Chip’s great legacy lies in how firmly he would insist that we do.

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