In 1969 at the Montreux Jazz Festival, the Jazz duo of Les McCann and Eddie Harris covered “Compared to What,” a tune originally performed by Roberta Flack. It almost immediately became a jazz standard. Since then, the song has been covered by more than 270 artists, including Ray Charles and John Legend. Although, in my opinion, the McCann/Harris version has never been bettered, the next best version is by Al Jarreau (linked at the bottom). Similar to Springsteen’s “Born in the U.S.A.,” the song’s jaunty rhythm is incongruous to its lyrics, which are laced with social criticism regarding war, income inequality, and American hypocrisy. It’s one of my all-time favorite songs.
The song and the three words of the title come to mind whenever I – for whatever reason – start to feel I’m “all that” as the kids used to say. They also occur to me whenever I see others puffing out their chests a bit more than might be deserving regarding some recent accomplishment or assertion of their superiority. On such occasions, I think, “Compared to what?”
For example, I’ve been playing a lot of tennis in recent years and have greatly improved my game – so much so, in fact, that I arrogantly started to believe that I had become too good to play with some of the guys I’ve been hitting with. Having forgotten those three bubble-bursting words (Compared to what?), I had allowed myself to think myself a pretty good tennis player. However, as the universe has a tendency of doing, it delivered me a serious dose of reality when I was asked to join a league of truly outstanding tennis players. Now, every Wednesday evening, each supersonic ace they blow past me, each overhead they whistle past my ear, each blistering passing shot they rip by my flailing racket, and perfect lob they send me chasing fruitlessly into the curtains screams, “So you think you’re a good tennis player? Compared to what?”
My College Credit Plus classes, which are full of the best students in the high school where I teach, sometimes bring that musical question to mind as well. For example, I’ve spent the majority of my non-teaching, waking hours this past week reading the first drafts of the semester’s final essays from my college composition students. Many of them were good; none of them were great. In my experience, most people mistakenly believe that “good” is right next door to “great,” but it isn’t. In fact, it is light years and millions of miles away. Similarly, the distance between an A and an A+ may seem to be only an arithmetically-advancing point, but the gap between those points is astronomic, for at that high of a grade level, the points advance exponentially, not arithmetically.
I’m sure many of my comp students believed they had turned in exemplary work, and compared to the student body as a whole, their papers probably were exceptional. However, I need my students to understand that it’s a big world full of outstanding high schools with driven students who never settle for good. These are my students’ peers with whom, in the very near future, they will be competing for college program placements, grad schools, med schools, and jobs. Whenever my students start to believe they’re Rhodes Scholars or Macarthur Genius Grant scholarship candidates, I need to remind them “Compared to what?”
They don’t always take it well. This week, one student cried as I pointed out the deficiencies in a paper on which she clearly worked very hard. After I, more-or-less, told another student that she should delete her entire first draft and start over, she apologized for “letting me down” with her sub-par paper. In both cases, I felt like a complete jerk. These were diligent and hard-working students, who are used to being told how stellar they are as students, not that they need to be better still. Delivering such critiques is one of the most difficult but necessary aspects of my job.
All good teachers and coaches know that the line separating pushing from pushing too hard is a thin one, and they carefully measure the amount of pressure they exert on each student. As I set expectations for myself and my students, I like to apply the wisdom of the Enlightenment poet Alexander Pope, who wrote that “A man’s reach should exceed his grasp.” In other words, leave the low-hanging, easily attainable fruit for the lazy others and reach for the unattainable. In so doing, even if we fall short of our goal, we’re all likely to do and be more than we ever imagined possible.
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