What's An Award Worth If Everyone Gets One?

I recently attended what seemed like the world's longest middle school honor awards ceremony in history.  Really.  It was long.  Like Academy Awards long.  It probably didn't help that I went straight from work without dinner and that I was tending to my five year old.  But regardless of my circumstance, I think impartial observers would agree it was long.

And why, you must be asking yourself, was said awards ceremony so lengthy?  Were the speeches superfluous?  No, not really.  Did the principal go on and on?  A little - but not strikingly so.  Was it that my 5 year old son had grown tired of Angry Birds and wanted to escape up the isle?  Perhaps it made it seem worse, but no.  The awards ceremony was not dragging on for hours due to verbose speakers or lengthy standing ovations, but rather from the sheer number of honorees at the middle school honor awards ceremony.

"Great News!" you must be thinking!  How heartwarming to hear that our students are excelling and the honors are flowing so generously in middle school America, yes?  What lengths and achievements we have reached in spreading knowledge and learning to so many fine and deserving students!  The teachers themselves remarked on how smart these kids really are.  And many of them undoubtedly are. But...

And it is a big but (insert childish snicker here).

It wasn't too disturbing that nearly HALF of the students were considered "honor" students - given the criteria for considering them so.  I'm not sure when the A/B honor roll included students with Cs, but it was long after I graduated I can only assume.  What was more telling was how many students - literally dozens of students from each grade level, who received ALL As ALL YEAR.  I wasn't taking full statistics as my five year old was beginning to whisper LOUDLY in my ear "CAN WE SNEAK OUT NOW DADDY?", but it seemed to be close to 20% of the student population had never received a grade less than "pretty damn well perfect."  The list of ALL A students was longer than the honor roll list!

My kids are both straight A students, but after watching this assembly, I'm not even sure what that means.  I always thought my kids were smart - and their grades have always been top notch.  I assumed they were the cream of the crop.  But apparently we've got more cream than a dairy farm at our little middle school and it leaves me to wonder whether my kids are as creamy as I had assumed.  Are my boys really excelling at learning - just like everyone else or are they just like everyone else?  There is a big difference!

Every parent digs their kids' getting an award.  Certificates are cool and fun to look at years down the road.  We've got certificates all over the kitchen.  Spelling Bee Participant.  Super AR Points.   Star Student.  Honor Club. Treble Maker.  Your kitchen probably looks the same way and I think there might be some shame in that.

It is a shame that we hand out awards like participation ribbons.  I think doing so diminishes the hard work that some people put into achieving excellence - whether in sports, arts or academics.  They don't get to receive the full measure of their success because they have to share it with people who really don't deserve it.

Don't misunderstand me - I think we should recognize excellence in academics, and sports, and arts.  I believe it is vital we do so not just to reward the efforts of the high achievers but to provide a goal for the ones who are close - and maybe a dream for the ones who are not.  But if our standards are such that excellence encompasses a majority of people and uber-excellence approaches 20%, aren't we just rewarding mediocrity?  When my oldest son went on stage to get his "honor club" certificate he quietly returned to his seat afterwards.  Not because he was asked to, or because he was embarrassed, but because there was no room left to stand with all the other kids who had awards too.

Maybe I'm wrong.  Perhaps my memory of the class distribution from my middle and high school days is clouded by years (lots of years) of time.  It could be that this particular group of students are all high achievers and Mensa will come calling soon.  Maybe these kids ARE that smart and I should have picked up a sandwich on my way and left the five year old with a baby-sitter.  But if I am right, we've got way bigger problems than a two hour honors assembly waiting for us down the road.