Underclassmen awards ceremony creates feeling of unimportance


Photo by Ellie Albin

Family members watch as the freshmen line up to shake Jason Urban’s hand and receive their certificate of Summa Cum Laude.

I have never been invited to the underclassmen awards ceremony, but it has shaped my educational and emotional experience more than any other event since I entered high school.

Last week, an envelope from FHS arrived at my house. Even as a junior, I still get a little excited when I see something delivered to my house from school. Usually, though, it turns out to be something I can just throw in a pile to be forgotten about.

But not this time. Because I knew exactly what it was, even though it was not addressed to me.

It was addressed to my freshman brother.

He opened it, but there was no need to even do that. We knew he had been quietly and secretly invited to the underclassmen awards ceremony, something neither of his sisters had ever achieved (or will ever achieve) in their years at FHS.

The delivery of that letter to my brother is when I finally realized that the constant awarding of plaques and certificates and ribbons to the same kids has taken its toll. Paula Gosal, principal at Chilliwack Middle School in Canada, said she got rid of awards at her school once she realized how unethical it was for her teachers to be arguing over students, campaigning for their favorites and ultimately putting kids with the highest grades on a pedestal.

Awards are trite and others are getting hurt. Even my brother, a champion of school awards ceremonies, has told me he no longer understands the value of receiving an award for his GPA.

From first-hand experience, my brother not only got bored but saw how much it hurt his own sister – me – year after year. No matter how proud I was (and am) of him, I could never get over the idea that the teachers and school appeared to be prouder of him than me. And, after hearing some of my teachers and staff talk at the awards ceremony (I decided to attend to support my brother), I feel as if, unfortunately, my perspective may have some truth to it: the pride of the school belongs predominantly to the students in that room.

I worked really hard for my 4.1 GPA. The girl in the classroom across the hall worked really hard for her 3.4 GPA. The boy on the other side of the school worked really hard for his 3.1 GPA.

But where are their awards?

As I have proceeded through my schooling at FHS, I have struggled to come to grips with whether or not I am actually smart enough to be certain people’s friends, if I am smart enough to be in AP classes or if any of my efforts are actually worth it.

Students with 4.3 GPAs and above will reap the rewards of their hard work – no physical award is needed on an annual basis, because the real purpose of a 4.3 GPA should be what it symbolizes, not what awards it will get you, not what attention it will get you, and not what shiny plaque it will get you.

It should all be for yourself. Is that not a valid enough award?

That was a hard lesson for me to learn. It took years for me to learn that a GPA is just a number, an award is just a piece of paper, and you and your teachers eventually grow apart, and relationships that once mattered no longer do.

And that advice is from a kid with “only” a 4.1.

But, let’s be honest: it still hurts. It all still hurts. Public recognition is pretty cool.

At this point, though, I do not want an award. I tried for years and I am at the point of giving up. I just want a solution for all the kids who will walk through these halls in the future. I do not want any kid to ever doubt for a second that what they are proud of is important and that the choice to not stack up on AP and honors courses just for an award is important (trust me – taking four million AP classes in high school will not make you smarter. It will not make you more deserving. It will just get you further in the game of college admissions – and, at the end of the day, the school that makes you the happiest is not always the Harvards and Yales of the world).

And standing your ground when your school is being inconsiderate, even if not intentionally, is important.

Because every time April comes around, every time the letters get delivered, every time the whispers of who got invited and who did not start to circulate – I am not the only kid who feels left out when the Summa Cum Laude kids and department award winners post pictures on Instagram from the ceremony.

My annual April routine goes through all the stages, year after year – jealousy, anger, sadness and defeat.

But there is a new one this year: not caring. And I am afraid of that feeling.

I do not want any more bright, promising and hopeful students to obsess as I have for three years. I want them to be able to move on, to know that life is full of more important things.

But it is time the school moved on, too. This is not a one-way street. This could be a group effort if we all just learned to work together, adults and kids, to produce a school that is not only proud of how strong their academics are, but is proud of the morals they instilled in the kids who once passed through for four short years.

I mentioned Chilliwack Middle School earlier in this article – the school that got rid of awards. Not only did they get rid of awards, but they opted to promote self-confidence, higher self-esteem and pride in their students.

So, what did they do? They put on a “success showcase.”

The best part? It was all kid-driven.

Gosal wanted the students to be able to show who they were inside and outside of school – letting kids prove not only to the adults but, more importantly, to themselves, that a GPA does not define you.

What you love does.

Throughout the halls of the school, every student wrote a one-page statement that said “I am proud of ___.” One student wrote, “I am proud of overcoming my shyness and singing in front of the entire school!”

Every student got to demonstrate not only why they are proud of who they are, but why everyone else should be proud of them as well. The showcase was filled with dancing, musical instruments, singing, poetry, kids shooting basketballs, video game battles and many more passions. As families, friends and staff walked through, one thing was clear: kids are pretty cool. And kids are pretty well-rounded.

And kids are more than an award.

Every kid deserves the chance to know that.