Those wringing their hands over rewarding straight-A students at Eastern Middle School with a dance and pizza need to ask themselves if they really want the equal-in-the-extreme world of the Kurt Vonnegut Jr. story “Harrison Bergeron.”
Should the school district seek to keep athletes from wearing letter jackets or other team clothing? After all, doesn’t this just rub salt in the wounds of all those who didn’t make the team? Would it require everyone to wear shapeless clothing so no one will know who is fat and who is thin?
Each person has his or her own complement of strengths and weaknesses. We should be raising our children to have the character to recognize and celebrate the success of others without feeling themselves diminished. Shielding our children from excellence gives them nothing to shoot for but mediocrity.You can read my response as well as four others here. Note that mine is the only response in favor of the dance.
I am not without empathy for the difficulties of middle school. My memories of middle school are painful. I was physically an early bloomer so I was a little bit taller and a little curvier than my peers. I had bad complexion, thick dark plastic rimmed glasses, and buck teeth. Given my pubescent awkwardness I was not particularly popular. I had friends, but I was not a cheerleader or athlete. Still, I ran for student council office. As I am standing on stage giving my campaign speech before the entire school, friends of my opponent have climbed up to the stage lighting and are dropping confetti down behind me like snow making the entire assembly laugh. I had no idea why everyone is laughing at my carefully crafted and serious speech. So yes, I am very aware and sensitive to the potential cruelty of middle school students.
I also know what it means to struggle to get an A in a class. Put me in any academic class and I was a star. Put me in gym class and I was a fish out of water. Principal's Honor Roll was the recognition for making straight As. I wanted that award but PE was a graded class so the first quarter I didn't make it. PE was graded on performance, not just effort. The second quarter was gymnastics. Let me be clear. I have never, ever been built like a gymnast. Yet in order to make an A in gym class, I would have to master the cartwheel, round-off, head-stand to forward roll, hand-stand to forward roll, back bend to back walk-over and a front walk-over. Every single day for weeks I came home, moved the living room furniture and practiced these rudimentary gymnastics skills. Through sheer determination, I made it. I have never worked so hard for an A in a class in my entire life. The memory of that herculean effort has stayed with me for over forty years.
Perhaps because of these experiences I support the pizza party/dance reward for academic achievement. The principal of this school made clear that there are other school dances that include the whole student body and other recognition programs that honor effort and improvement. I think the worries about bullying are overblown. Do you really think the math geeks are going to lord their ability to recite the number Pi out to twenty digits over the football jocks? (assuming that the math geeks are not also the football jocks. The two categories are not automatically mutually exclusive) And if you avoid honoring high academic achievers because you are afraid of making them the victims of bullies, you allow the entire school district to be bullied.
Why would we want to teach our children to respond, "That's not fair!" instead of "Congratulations!" when someone excels? Why should we assume that they will be demoralized if they do not win top honors? Do we really want to suggest the response to quit instead of work harder is the expected response? I think all this coddling just reinforces insecurities and low self-esteem. I want my children to be strong enough to see great achievements by others without feeling bad about themselves. We can't all be computer geniuses. We can't all be Olympians. But we can all be kind, compassionate, and generous. We should all learn to apply these virtues in both victory and defeat. Starting these lessons in middle school is not too early.