GIVING CREDIT WHERE CREDIT IS DUE
AND MAYBE EVEN WHERE IT’S NOT
I was a terrible student. Calling my scholarly record erratic would be complimentary. The expression “skin of his teeth” was invented to describe how I graduated.
Failed Algebra I; made it up in summer school. Failed Algebra II; took a second language so I didn’t have to repeat it. Geometry and trigonometry didn’t figure in my wildest imaginings. It was the old story: bright kid who put effort into only those subjects that interested him. I left a sad trail of dedicated high school teachers frustrated with their inability to motivate me.
I can’t say I didn’t care about grades. It would have been nice to be on the honor roll, and the one time I made Dean’s List in college did feel good. Of course, that was accomplished mainly because of a very light semester composed of pretty much all fluff courses (I’ve always said I majored in Drop-and-Add).
But I had enough confidence in my own talents and was so absorbed in my own interests that my, shall we say,academic irregularities usually didn’t cause me too much ego discomfort. Except when it came time for Honors Assembly. Shabby as my grades were, I always hung out with the best students. And I experienced many an awkward moment congratulating my closest friends on their ribbons and trophies and certificates.
Never did it occur to me, though, that their hard work shouldn’t be acknowledged or that the recognition shouldn’t be public or that I should have been somehow shielded from any possible feelings of failure because I wasn’t on stage with them. They deserved the credit that was their due, and I deserved to be reminded that I did not.
Those days are gone.
It’s a cliché of our time that “everybody gets a trophy for showing up,” which is to say that children’s self-esteem must be protected at all costs. A middle school in Ipswich, Massachusetts, took that idea literally, canceling its annual Honors Night awards ceremony in favor of a more broadly inclusive assembly. As reported by Boston Fox affiliate WFXT-TV, Principal David Fabrizio sent a letter to parents explaining that
“The Honors Night, which can be a great sense of pride for the recipients’ families, can also be devastating to a child who has worked extremely hard in a difficult class but who, despite growth, has not been able to maintain a high grade point average.”
The cancellation has come in for some stinging criticism. For instance, the conservative school-reform advocacy group, Education Action Group Foundation, reported the move on its website under the headline, “All hail mediocrity.” But support has also been expressed. Local resident Ann Fitzgerald wrote a letter to the editor of the Ipswich Chronicle in which she backed the school’s principal, insisting that “Mr. Fabrizio has taken a courageous stand for the benefit of all the students at IMS, and decided not to exclude any students from the honors assembly.”
I feel for those hard-working students soldiering on through their deficiencies. But I suspect there are far more kids who approach their studies in the haphazard way I did than there are earnest little strugglers falling short despite monumental effort. And I also suspect that, if pushed to the wall, David Fabrizio might admit that’s the case. As noted in the Fox story, the principal pointed out that “academic success can be influenced by the amount of support a student receives at home and not all students receive the same level of emotional and academic support at home.”
True enough. But this can be seen either as a dodge or as a tacit admission that the high achievers benefit not only from emotional and academic support, but from parents kicking their little bottoms — which is to say not taking a directly protective approach to their self-esteem. Either way, why should the good kids be denied the rewards of effort because others face the admittedly great misfortune of having been born into families unable or unwilling to provide the resources and motivation which academic success requires?
This looks like a case of trying to compensate for inequities in life that go far beyond the ability of any school to mitigate them. Moreover, by downplaying the achievements of its best students, a school denies its less accomplished ones the benefit of a key influence that has always helped to provide motivation within an academic environment: peer pressure.
Now, I can attest to the fact that peer pressure doesn’t work consistently. But even if watching my friends receive their awards wasn’t enough to make me a scholar, neither did it leave my conscience completely untroubled. In fact, I would say it was a good experience — humbling, actually — and at the least, preparation for greater blows which life would bring down the road.
I can appreciate that educators have a wide range of constituencies to satisfy these days. And no doubt they catch a lot of flak from parents who think Junior’s true gifts have gone unrecognized and his dedicated labors unappreciated.
But for my own school to have diminished the accomplishments of my friends in order to shield my self-esteem would have been to commit a great injustice, both to my friends and to me. And that would have had the distinct smell of moral failure on the part of the school and everyone with responsibility for it.
Take a few minutes to watch the news report on Ipswich Middle School’s program cancellation along with comments from some of the station’s personalities…