Sunday Morning~ Punished by Rewards

My friend came over this week to catch up. It had been way too long and there was much to tell. The only night we could manage was when she was committed until 9 at the high school awards night, and though I’m an early-to-bed girl, I said, “Come afterward. I’ll rally.” When it approached 9:45, I figured she wasn’t coming.  I was getting ready for bed, when she called from the car saying, “I just got done! Can I still come?”  I happily shifted out of park, said Yes!, put my toothbrush down and pulled out the nice wine glasses.  The days are longer and sleep could wait.

She arrived, removed her heels, and gave an exasperated sigh. She started describing the ceremony and I realize that nothing much has changed since I last went to one.  I asked, “Did ten kids win all one hundred awards?” She looked up at me, “Yes! Exactly!  It was so sad!”  Oh really?  Sad that the entire graduating class must march in full regalia, sit for three hours, and watch organizations give out awards and scholarships? When the few lucky winners are mostly kids who are already advantaged? Someone else finds that sad?

I have two experiences of high school graduation. My own and my childrens’.  We didn’t have an awards ceremony at my high school.  There were a couple of scholarships that were given out to graduating seniors but they were done at the graduation itself, and the few other awards were given at a school assembly.  So when my oldest son graduated, I experienced a new phenomenon: Awards Night.  This is a grand ceremony, held the Thursday evening before graduation. The seniors march in cap and gown as the band plays Pomp and Circumstance and weepy mothers look on with pride.

My oldest was the first of his generation to graduate, so it was a big thing.  Lots of family came and we all settled into the bleachers for the ceremony. I was excited. My son was smart. He was popular. He was the only student in the history of the school to take four years of two languages and become proficient in them.  Ok, he had his issues, and wasn’t valedictorian or anything, but I was proud of him. Why I thought his name might ever be called, was what?  Wishful thinking? The language award at least?

We sat for hours, while the same ten kids went up to that stage over and over and over. I was mortified. Why on earth would they make all these kids sit here like losers? And the description of the recipient before it is announced!  They read all these glowing qualities, and one thinks, yes, that’s my child….oh, no, wait, that’s not my child.  That’s the same child that won the last award.  And the one before that. At one point, my seven year old niece turned to me and said, “Wow, they have a lot of Brittanys in that class!” I said, “No honey.  That’s the same girl going up there over and over.”

I entered that gymnasium a proud parent. I left an angry, bitter, mamma bear. I brought it up at the next PTA meeting. I asked why it was necessary to have a whole evening of embarrassment for students and parents before graduation?  It sounded like sour grapes, I’m sure.  Oh, just because your kid (and this would become kids, plural, over the next six years) didn’t win anything? Well, it’s not that my kids didn’t win anything (though I thought he, at least, deserved the language award!) , but most of the kids didn’t win anything!!!! Why do you make them sit there to watch that?  The principal, presiding over this meeting, said all the kids have to do to get an award was to fill out the application, and only a few of them do, that’s why there are so few recipients.  My response to that was, then why is it such a big fucking achievement? One that deserves making hundreds of people watch?  Oh! That’s because the organizations that give the awards like being recognized. It’s good public relations. (This was actually used as a rational explanation.)

I never got anywhere with this over the six years my kids were in high school, though I brought it up every chance I got. I quoted Alfie Kohn, The Trouble with Gold Stars, Incentive Plans, A’s, Praise, and Other Bribes, somehow thinking observations and research by an expert in education would add weight to my argument. Nope. Deaf ears. My own sour grapes was seen as the motivator there. I continued to suffer through, what I called: Awards Night aka The Public Shaming of the Majority of Students, and after my twins graduated, I dropped it.

So my friend arrived Thursday night and I learned that nothing has changed.  Not sure if I’ll add this to my list of social injustice causes, but I reveled in seeing someone else be upset about it.