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#Strange Truth Beauty Keats March Madness or (“How an English Teacher Can Work John Keats into a Postgame Analysis of the NCAA Basketball Tournament)

Truth is stranger than fiction. Translation: fiction can be ignored when it’s implausible and truth cannot. Just ask English poet John Keats about truth.

Nowhere is truth more beautiful than during the NCAA College Basketball tournament. The great truth about March Madness is that one has to believe the scoreboard and not the seeds. Pregame seeds are fiction; final scores are truth. Or, as Keats said, “Beauty is truth, truth beauty.”

Before anyone dismisses the connection of Keats to NCAA college basketball as implausible and something only an English teacher would contrive, consider that it was English teacher John Wooden, head coach at UCLA, whose Bruins won ten NCAA national championships in a 12-year period, including an unprecedented seven in a row. One cannot ignore those credentials. Shall we move on?

In Round 1, when UAB (#14) beat Iowa State (#3) and UCLA (#11) beat SMU (#6), the truth of the final scores was stranger than the fiction of the pregame seedings. That both games were decided by a single point is even stranger. That both games had the exact same score of 60-59? Truth at its strangest. That both teams would meet in Round 2? Beauty. No fiction writer could ever have gotten away with that.

Think about it: when fiction is contrived, the reader feels cheated and discredits the author as a poor writer who concocted an implausible story. “That could never happen,” complains the reader.

Even though fiction writers have the discretion of using situational irony (e.g., Romeo and Juliet end their families’ hatred with their love), some actual events would crumble in the world of fiction, such as this scenario from Round 1: two fathers (Steve Alford/UCLA and Ron Hunter/Georgia State) coached two sons (Bryce Alford and R.J. Hunter), both of whom got the game-winning shot, both games being huge upsets (UCLA #11 beating SMU #6 / Georgia State #14 beating Baylor #3), both games being decided by a single point. An editor would wreak havoc with those coincidences. Keats, however, called the shot: “Beauty is truth, truth beauty.”

Here are some other incontrovertible numbers that made for good (non)fiction. Like the shot clock which counts down, here are five facts in descending order from Round 1:

  • five: # of games won by one point (a new record) ; # of upsets;
  • four: First Four team Dayton advanced to Round 2;
  • three: # of busted brackets after Round 1;
  • two: # of games with the same final score in Round 1;
  • one: all this madness in just one round

Repeat: Truth ranks great fiction because fiction can be ignored when it appears implausible. One cannot simply ignore the truth as implausible. Even if one does ignore it, the truth does not obligingly go away. The uncomfortable part is that there’s no author to complain to when it comes to the truth. It’s maddening.

Did someone say “mad”? In March, all madness leads to the NCAA college basketball tournament. Keats wasn’t a sports writer, but he might as well have been. All the post game analyses of how and why a fourteenth seed can beat a third seed and an eleventh seed can beat a sixth seed are neatly packaged in Keats’s last two lines in “Ode on a Grecian Urn”: “Beauty is truth, truth beauty,–that is all / Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.”

A sports writer short on copy to meet a deadline could simply quote Keats. In laymen’s terms, it is what it is, and it’s a beautiful thing. End of story.

To those who cling to the fiction of seeds: on some cosmic level, the second round game between UCLA and UAB echoed the original seeding. How? The margin between the teams was the same as the brackets intended. According to the brackets, in the first round, if the third and sixth seeded teams beat the eleventh and fourteenth seeded teams respectively, then the second round game would be a third team playing a sixth team–two teams separated in the seedings by three. In truth, the two Cinderella teams UCLA (11) and UAB (14) were separated by the same predicted margin of three. Instead of #3 vs. #6, it was #11 vs. #14. The ratio of three remained in tact. A sort of parallel universe. Kind of like when two odd numbers add up to an even one. The two upsets were odd, but the margin remained an even keel at three. Strange but true. Or rather, strange and true.

Repeat: Strange. Truth. Beauty. Keats. March. Madness.

~Mary O’Connor


“F”ailure is an Option

At the beginning of the year I preached this nugget of advice to my students: don’t be afraid to fail, take risks, make mistakes. In the end, I told them, they will prove to be some of your greatest learning lessons. So, having said that a number of times already throughout the year, I’ve decided to heed my own advice and put my preaching to practice. I’m typing without going back, ignoring the fact that I might not like exactly how I’ve worded things or how things have been formatted.

Regardless of one’s age, this practice is not an easy one to undertake. And, frankly, it might not have the same effect or impact on the young minds of my freshmen students as it does on an adult my age, but what I’ve found thus far is that it is very freeing and cathartic to accept and welcome failure. I’ll grant you that it’s very easy for me to claim this when I don’t have the looming concern of being graded on this task. However, herein lies the learning lesson for children and adults alike that we need to begin delivering much earlier: it is acceptable, if not flatly beneficial, to fail.

I know this might sound counterintuitive and downright blasphemous for a teacher to assert, but let’s examine this for a moment. In every facet of our lives, from the very early ages of our youth and throughout adulthood, we learn from our failures. As a child especially, this is the case quite often. How did we learn to walk? Or ride a bike? Or write our name? We tried, we failed and we tried again and again and again until we finally got it. All the while, we did so with guidance and support: someone holding our hands as we took our first steps; a hand on our seat as we began to peddle without training wheels; or, someone by our side navigating the movements of our pencil. And even then we weren’t very good at it. Yet, we persevered and now we can do any and all of these things without any thought. As adults, how did we learn to drive a car, cook a meal or even raise a child? We did so by frequently performing the task over an extended period of time, very often inadequately or incorrectly, until we got the hang of it. My point is that we fail a lot more often than we acknowledge or are willing to admit. Why is that? Well, simply put, because we don’t qualify it as failure and instead justify it as part of the learning process. The same should hold true for learning in school.

Sadly, ‘should’ is the operative word in that last sentence; not all classrooms subscribe to the philosophy that failure is an option. Well, I do. In my classroom, there will always be room for improvement. In the end, this yields the learning that teachers, parents and students alike strive for.  After all, when a student hands in inferior work, what good does it serve that child to give them an ‘F’ and move on to the next unit without providing them the opportunity to improve up on it? Similarly, what good would it serve to throw a young child into a pool without some type of swimming device?

I believe that students should not be forced – better yet, even allowed – to experience the fear or anxiety of failure. Unfortunately, by the time a children reach the 9th grade, failure is so stigmatized that when they receive an ‘F’ it becomes their scarlet letter. Failure should be the small steps students take towards eventual success. Schools should work to remove the stigma of failure from our classrooms. By doing so, we’ll foster young adults that are confident, independent and well suited to take risks, confront the challenges that they encounter in their lives to come and not fear learning. After all, they’ll eventually have to swim in the deep end alone.

~ Jonathan

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