At my son’s last school, he won the majority of the academic awards. He works hard, is on-task, and gets his work done (and done well), and the awards were a result of his hard work. I’ve never had to push him to do homework or study for a test. And, yes, he’s really smart.
At the awards ceremony, before the principal announced the recipients, he advised everyone accordingly: “Now, when we give out the awards, you don’t need to clap or be loud. This isn’t a game or a sporting event, so let’s wait until the end and then we can do a quick clap, and you can go back to class.”
My jaw dropped. I put my hands in my lap. And then I felt really sad.
You see, for my oldest, this is his “sporting event.” This is his chance to shine. School is what he does well and what he focuses on. He will never get a trophy for being on the winning basketball team, but he will get awards for straight As or the highest GPA for his grade. Yes, he could join a debate team or a science team or some other academic “team,” but if that’s not his thing, school is.
How is being an academic superstar different from being a sports superstar? Can’t we feel the same enthusiasm for the kid who is gifted with a bright brain instead of gifted with fast feet? The kid who studies hard just like the kid who practices hard?
As the principal finished his statement, I saw signs go down in laps and other parents tucking away their hands. I felt the energy in the bleachers across from us—filled with students—deflate.
Each student walked up in dead silence to accept their awards and then walked back to their spot. Every once in a while, a parent would break out in a loud clap and whoop, unable to contain their excitement, when their kid came up for their award. But, just like my son, I’m a bit of a rule follower, so I bit my lip as he got up and walked down through the bleachers.
In that moment, I remembered the day he walked into the cafeteria for his kindergarten teacher visit. He was so tall that they put him at the end of the line. At the end of the school year, he walked out again for kindergarten graduation still at the back of the line, still the tallest one, holding a paper-plate award. Each child held theirs in front of them as they stood at the front.
His read: “Loves playing with his friends and playing with cars.”
I had to read it several times. It might as well have read: “Loves playing with martians and flying in space.”
It should have read: “Loves reading in the corner and creating complex Lego structures.”
It could have read: “Future engineer.”
Some awards are just worthless. I get it. But then there are the ones you really do work hard to earn.
Why are we not as enthusiastic in the celebration of the scholar as we are the athlete?
“Why?”—it was the question my son asked me when I told him not to throw away the certificates he had received.
“Put them in your binder. You earned them, and I am proud of you.”
He grudgingly pulled out the binder with page protectors filled with many other awards. I hope one day he’ll find that binder—maybe buried at the bottom of a cardboard box I’ll give him when he graduates college—and feel a bit nostalgic but also a bit proud.
Those awards are no less earned than the award an athlete gets for being MVP. It’s OK to cheer for the smart kids. In fact, I propose that it’s really important that we do. The message that we send if we don’t is that those certificates can end up in a trash can and that society doesn’t value the talent these kids bring to the community table.