The Thrill Of Victory And The Agony Of Miscommunication

“Language can become a screen which stands between the thinker and reality. This is the reason why true creativity often starts where language ends.”

~Arthur Koestler

I was feeling a bit dejected. My confidence was suffering as self doubt crept into my mind. It had been a long, yet rewarding month at work that had me working on weekends and long hours during the week. But, this wasn’t what had me down.

It was my latest side project.

Despite my research, my effort, my determination night after night, I was failing. I tried to remain positive, to grind through, to set a good example for my kids. This particularly endeavor was taken on in an effort to make my middle son proud, to show him his dad could do anything, could handle anything, and with enough hard work could accomplish anything.  It hurt to see the disappointment in his eye as I failed time and time again, but I knew I couldn’t quit, no matter how badly I wanted to. I had to be a positive example. I had to exhibit the behaviors I often lectured him and my other boys about so many times.

After about 30 minutes on this particular night, things seemed to be clicking for me; I was getting close! My heart raced as the real possibility of success was in my reach. My hands got sweaty, my stomach turned and gurgled.  I reminded myself to stay focused, to stay present, to trust the process.

Then it happened, I did it! After so many failures, I had finally reached success! It almost didn’t seem real. I dropped to my knees covered my face with my hands in an exaggerated display of emotion.  Andrew looked at me puzzled. I think he was as shocked as I was. Yet, his shock turned to anger as I popped up from my knees displaying the–if only for the moment–agility and passion I had as an 18 year old in the dorm rooms of Cortland.

I let out several of my best Ric Flair “wooooooooo” chants as I pumped my fist over and over again.  My wife and oldest came rushing into the room wondering what happen and if Andrew and I were ok.

“What happened?!? Is everyone ok?” Rebecca exclaimed.  

Overcome by emotion I repeat over and over again, “It feels so good, It just feels so good!”

Rebecca looked at me in disgust.

I then turned my head to see if Justin was proud of me. He was! Grinning and nodding his head, but my elation was short lived. My world was rocked by a devastating pillow shots to the head delivered by Andrew.  He was not happy for me, and was infuriated with my display of emotion. Even after beating me for at least 100 matches of Super Smash Brothers, and even after his efforts to coach me into becoming a better player, he never expected his old man, an old man, to beat him, a true gamer, at any video game, let alone his current favorite.

You may be surprised to learn that this story does not set up a piece on grit and determination. You may not be surprised that it isn’t about sportsmanship and winning with class (cut me some slack I am still a work in progress!).  My connection to education is actually communication.

Night after night while playing with Andrew, he tried to be patient with me, tried to teach me how to play, on how to at least give him a decent game.  No matter how much he tried, I just couldn’t understand what he was saying to me. He was speaking a foreign language.

Yet, he didn’t quit on me, although he may have if he could have predicted my sophomoric outburst in victory.  

The turning point in my gameplay was when he realized he needed to use different vocabulary to teach me. I had no idea that “stop spamming” actually meant “stop smashing the same button over and over again” or that “Use your Smash attack” meant hit the right joystick in old guy speak. Side B, recovering high, L2, R1, Neutral B, the vernacular went on and on, and to me it sounded like the teacher in a Peanuts cartoon.

Andrew seems to be a natural as a teacher.  He realized he needed a different approach so started explain the controls to me in a more simplified manner. That’s when I started to show progress.

The next cultural barrier we faced was how I learned the various moves.  My video game skills progressed from a joystick with a red button, to a flat arrow and two buttons, to controller with a mini joystick and 4 buttons.  Then life happened. Marriage, work, parenthood, divorce, school, more parenthood, administration, more schooling, and I just no longer had time to play video games like I did in my heyday.

Sure I played from time to time and had no trouble beating up on my kids while they were younger. Yet, after I had a few glorious celebrations that resulted in unacceptable outbursts by my youngest Scott when he was 3 1/2 years old, I hung up my control forever or so I thought.

As our kids get older, we look for ways to connect with them. When they hit their teens their dad is no longer the coolest thing in their world.  Fathers have to adjust, to meet them on their turf, to find joy in things we never imagined we would be participating in. That fact is what led me to dusting off my controller only to find the gaming world had passed me by.

My style was archaic so Andrew adjusted. He realized that the old guy once again need a different approach to learning the game that came easy to him. The combos he spoke of were too much too fast. I needed to work on one move at a time, master it, practice it, then and only then could I start to figure out how to use the various tools in my arsenal in conjunction with each other.  If he tried to fix all my flaws at once, if I tried to do too much, I would quickly become overwhelmed and get nowhere.

Playing night after night, feeling inadequate, insignificant, and unintelligent, an idea started to formulate. I started to relate my game play my progress with education and life.  

How many kids feel less than, are seen as less than, because they communicate differently from the person educating them?  How many adults have their ideas dismissed because they come from a different culture or family background? How many people do we align with philosophically, but just fail to connect with because we seem to speak a different language?  How many times do we make a mistake or drop a ball because we misunderstood direction?

A good friend and District leader often speaks to me about all the issues that could be avoided if communication were just better: if everyone knew what was expected, if everyone was on the same page.  She is not wrong, but the challenge is how do we get there?

Keep It Simple

Avoid jargon; it doesn’t matter if it is in the field of education, medicine, or construction, people are not ignorant if they do not know the key buzz words.  Big words, unique terms, and specific vocabulary are not a quality filter, but rather a discriminator that devalues talent and over values those who have been in the know.

Try A Different Approach

Not everyone learns the same way.  Try a different approach. Even the most difficult child (and adult) wants success.  No one says I want to be a pain in the ass. I want to fail. If things are not working, if your kids are not getting it, try something different. It is our job as educators to educate, to reach kids, to get them there. At the end of the day, it really doesn’t matter how.

Get Clear On Vocabulary

Talk to kids and other adults in their language.  If they do not understand what you are trying to say, find a different way to say it.  Figure out what your words mean to others, not what you think they should mean or what they mean to you.

Silence Can Be Golden

Often, we can learn more from body language, from facial expressions, from a smile than we can from words. It is ok to just be quiet sometimes and communicate in a different way, to learn about someone from non verbal means.


No one wants to be disliked, no one wants to be misunderstood, no one sees themselves as ineffective or inadequate. People want to be liked, people want to be valuable; most times people have the best of intentions. Keep that in mind when you are angry with someone, or you disagree with how they handled a situation. Sometimes people just communicate differently; it doesn’t mean they are all that different from you.  

Use Variety

It can be with staff, it can be with students, it can be with your partner, but saying it once, saying it one way is usually not enough.  Communicate your message in various platforms, using various vocabulary, using various strategies. When it comes to communication, more is, in fact, more.  

It may be cultural, it may be generational, it may be brain chemistry, it may be language, but how we communicate with others can often be a barrier that creates a divide that impedes progress.  We must never forget as educators and as people that we are all cut from the same cloth. For the most part we all want the same thing, to be good people, to make a difference, to be valued. The problem is even if we speak the same dialect, we may not be speaking the same “language”.  We need to realize that a communication barrier does not have to lead to strife.

When we look at our differences with curiosity rather than judgement we can progress as educators and as a society.  

The satisfaction of beating Andrew was short lived, as he refused to play me for a week after my immature reaction to victory.  Not having that connection with my son was much more hurtful than having Yoshi smash into the screen night after night. Finally, I swallowed my pride and explained that back in the 90s that’s how we did it.  Part of the fun was the celebration in beating your friends. I described Marco and my victory over our dorm neighbors in SEGA Genesis PGA golf . The joy of winning the Cortland Madden tourney, the celebration after being the guy who solved Dragon’s Lair and how I would rub it in, time and time after beating my friend Chris in seven game series in our favorite game, NBA2K.

Andrew, who is probably more mature at 17 than I am at 46, explained that he and his friends don’t find gloating fun. In fact, it is considered unethical. Once again, communication and social norms were misaligned.  I realized I had to adjust; so now when we play I am complimentary, and when am lucky enough to squeak out a rare win, I temper my celebrations because ultimately it is more important to have something to share with my son than to celebrate a victory….most nights…but, every once in a while, a Ric Flair WOOOOOOOOOO! is just too much fun to pass up on!

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