I recently read HERE that a school in Oregon would be handing out the title valedictorian to more than one student. Not to two or three. To over twenty. Everyone is a winner.
But here is the conundrum: Everyone isn’t a winner- that’s a hard lesson to learn, and it seems to be a harder lesson to teach. As though adults don’t want to hurt any child’s feelings, there are trophies given out to every team. Second chances become third and fourth attempts. The list could go on forever. It feels like as a society, we miss crucial learning opportunities while offering no real value to our children.
Oddly, my first bewilderment at “everyone gets a medal” was the cost. Plain and simple: year after year kids come to sell me chocolate (because that has something to do with sports and fitness?) to raise money for uniforms, field maintenance, equipment, and travel expenses. Of course I support my local teams, and I always will, but it makes me wonder: if the league didn’t spend money on medals for everyone- perhaps just a celebratory pizza party or cookout (?)- wouldn’t there be more money in the treasury for things like Friday night lights and cleats for the kids who need them?
Years ago I watched my brothers (who seemed to never be on a winning soccer team) sit down with their trophies and pizza at the end of the season, having learned nothing of the sport, nor how to gracefully lose and thus sportsmanship, having lost no pride (and not gained any either) at not winning a single game. Sure, that’s OK at 6 and 7, but if your entire league, regardless of age, is pass/pass, when does anyone learn how to fail or what to do when it happens? As my brothers got older, their trophies broke or were so covered in dust you couldn’t tell if the gold guy on top was kicking a ball or holding a bat. My brothers have no memories of a season clinching win, or a play-off ending loss. They can’t really remember anything except that when I came to a game I cheered kind of loud.
As I stare at my teddy bear full of ribbons (I keep safely at my Mom’s house), I can recall almost every gymnastics venue I ever competed in. From Brandywine’s floor to UMLY’s notoriously hard judges. The vault I broke my finger on in Hanover. The day we got a bounce strip at Hatboro. Abington never hosting a meet because they were just too small (where I first trained). I was no Shannon Miller, but I loved my sport. I remember falls, broken fingers, ankles and toes, and all my ripped hands. All those fails. I remember learning to point my toes, focus on a spot, let go of the fear, use grips, to never pick a wedgie during a routine and to just try harder. The first time I made states after a meet at the Main Line Y. The two weeks I spent at Woodward Gymnastics Camp overcoming mental blocks and becoming independent every summer. The weekend I competed in my first state competition, which is also when I locked my Dad’s keys in the car during an extremely hot day 200 miles from home. He smiled about it, taking my hand and leading me to an air conditioned room to wait in while he figured out a way to regain entry to the car. Those times when I didn’t place. Other times when I finished 2nd because of one bobble. I learned how to succeed from failing.
Remembering all of this, gymnastics being the sport I competed in for the longest, is when I begin to wonder how much good is really being done in comparison to the harm, when we give everyone a medal.
Though military school is a bit beyond the regimented life I feel comfortable in, the idea that all people are winners makes me more uncomfortable- not because I think any one person is better than another… but sometimes, they are. It’s a fact. I love the Philadelphia Flyers. I think they are the best NHL team. But they’re not, at least not statistically. I still wear their jersey, like a proud parent cheering on their child in a soccer game where he resigns himself to the left goal post staring at the sky. I still cheer. When it’s the last game of the season and we are already out of the playoffs, I cheer hard, beer in hand, elbow in the line of vision of the guy next to me wearing the opposing team’s jersey. I’m there. But that doesn’t make the Flyers’ winners. They are losers. They lost.
Let’s move beyond sports, though. Let’s take a look at telling kids they are ALL the smartest. All children, by that logic, that did not get 4.0 GPA, perhaps 3.8 students, they are not the smartest. Right? What about the kids who got lower grades in harder classes? Where do they fall? And all kids with a 2.8 GPA, they are all the dumbest? What about the kids below that, or kids with LDs? Or are there only the smartest kids? How does this work? Valedictorian is defined as the student who has the highest academic ranking… and is the best representative of the class. Oh no. Here we are again. The Best. So if we are all the best, who is the best of the best of the best of the… And really, do we sit through 21 speeches at graduation?
It’s not just about long winded speeches that will never top Diane Court in Say Anything:
… The real world. We’re all about to enter ‘The Real World.’ That’s what everybody says. But most of us have been in the real world for a long time. But I have something to tell everybody. I’ve glimpsed our future, and all I can say is… ‘Go Back’.
Well, it’s almost over. We’ve gone to school together for three years, and we’ve been through a lot. But with that training out of High School gone, what’s going to happen to us? We all know what the answers are. We want to be happy, go to college, own a car, maybe raise a family. But what if that doesn’t happen? I have, I have to be honest though, I have all the hope and ambition in the world. But when I think about the future, the truth is, I am really scared.
It’s about recognizing that we are not all winners, we won’t all be the best- not just in that one thing, but anything. Some people are not the best in anything- that is OK! The best parenting advice I got was probably from my own parents’ actions. When I met my father’s gaze after a lost game, a B- paper or a broken plate, possibly uttering something like “we lost” or “I got a bad grade” or “I always do things wrong”, there was no pity. I never heard “that stinks” “or next time will be better”… I heard “that’s OK”. Honestly, sometimes there isn’t a “next time” and if there is, who is to say that you will do better? Simply, it’s OK to not be the best all the time. Just try.
When I was in high school, we worked hard to be the best at what we were passionate about. SCH, a school I attended, printed an article in its most recent school magazine talking about learning from and being allowed to make mistakes without negative consequence. Many teachers spoke about the lessons that could not have been learned and thus taught, without these epic fails. Like my solar car in 8th grade: it worked, but it didn’t win. “GREAT PROJECT!” graced the front of my Kinko’s bound Solar Car Project book. All of my notes, and the report- complete with hypothesis, experiments and outcomes, and still I didn’t win the competition and my car did not go on to compete with other schools. I remember that project, and it taught me to be more thorough, work harder and when I went to the competition I learned why I wasn’t the best- because someone else was (and were they ever)!
I hope the future doesn’t continue to trend towards everybody winning. Teach kids to fail. To fail hard. To miss the point, lose the game miserably, misspell an entire assignment because they had to HAND WRITE something and edit themselves. Not everyone can be the boss, get the raise, be #1. If gymnastics taught me nothing else, it’s that there is only one #1. If there was a tie, the all-around score was taken into consideration and second place went to the tie score of the girl with the lower AA score. Sounds harsh, right? If two people both did the same on their beam routine, weren’t they both #1 on beam?! No. It’s as simple as that. That meant that the second place score then got the third place ribbon- which made them third place. Again, no questions asked. Being the best is being the best. It’s OK to have rules, guidelines and scales on which to base our accomplishments. It’s OK to not be first. Heck, it’s OK to not even place!
At home we are all the same. I will love all of my children with the same passion. Each will be great at something(s). Each will be miserable at something(s). Every success is a chance to celebrate, and every fail an opportunity to teach and learn. Perhaps no one in my family will be the best at anything they try- but they will try. Maybe we will all find something we excel at and encourage others to succeed in, too! Regardless, because we will all fail, we will all learn how to succeed (whether we do or not isn’t really the point- because we CAN’T all succeed in Life 100% of the time).
And teach kids to learn, we shall. Right? This trait is what makes us, as adults, readily able to handle Life. From the 2am vomit on the wall-to-wall carpet, to the unexpected cut in pay, being an adult is full of life lessons learned through trial and error; the culmination of your childhood successes and fails teaching you how to continue on.