There’s a story making its way around the interwebs about a principal of a middle school in Massachusetts, who allegedly cancelled an honor’s assembly because it caused too much embarrassment to underachieving students. Since the story originated with Fox News, the intelligent consumer of news must perform the necessary due diligence to make sure the facts weren’t selectively cherry-picked and only half the story told. Upon doing so I discovered that the real story isn’t quite as damning as made out to be by Fox. What actually happened was that the principal rescheduled a private “honors-only” assembly to a later assembly where the entire school would be present. Still, we do find a letter that he wrote to the parents explaining his decision that I would like to discuss. Principal David Fabrizio of Irswich Middle School opined:
“ 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.”
There are so many things wrong with this sort of thinking it is difficult to know where to begin, but the obvious place would be…if Principal Fabrizio believes this, then why not keep the Honors Night Assembly private? By opening up the Honors assembly to the entire school won’t he be deliberately exposing under achieving students to devastation?
When I first read his quote I thought back to my days in Middle and High School. I remembered my horrible study habits, my nonchalance, my determined refusal to bring books to class, my spotty record turning in homework. I also remember all the fun I had skipping my last class of the day to go swimming off the horseshoe bridge about a mile from school,(a record of 27 absences for the year, which I believe is still the school record). My long suffering guidance counselor, God rest her soul, would daily harangue me for my indifferent scholarship, accusing me of wasting God-given talent, with little or no regard for how these criticisms might affect my self esteem. Finally, by the middle of my junior year, I was able to right the ship, although too late to salvage a respectable GPA. I share all this to say, that I was never once “devastated” when I sat through the awards assemblies where I would see my contemporaries receiving one plaudit after another. What I was, was bored, and annoyed, but far from “devastated”.
What are middle school students made of nowadays that an awards assembly would be an occasion for such humiliation? I must say that I was very disappointed the day I realized that I didn’t have enough athletic skill to become the starting short stop for the New York Yankees, quite pissed, in fact. It was just the latest in a long line of painful; sobering bouts of self discovery that each of us must endure. No, I wasn’t the best looking guy in school. No, my 1966 VW Beetle wasn’t the hottest ride in the senior lot. No, I wouldn’t be getting that free ride to Harvard after all. But along the way I discovered skills and gifts that I possessed in abundance that many of my class mates did not. My ability, for example, to charm my way out of detention, to convince the assistant principals to look the other way when one of my practical jokes went awry, contributed mightily to my self-confidence.
We are a culture who values self esteem in our children above practically anything else. This fixation on feeling good about ourselves is what produces confused Principals like David Fabrizio. It was my Parents’ conviction that my self-esteem would grow once I learned to do something well, not before I learned to do something well. Why would my parents want me to feel good about being an under-achieving, wise-cracking charmer? “You want to feel better about yourself? Stop acting like an idiot,” they would say. “And while you’re at it, sit still and pay attention during the awards assemblies. You might learn something!”
Once I entered the real world I learned rather quickly that my guidance counselor was right. In business, they don’t hand out participation trophies; you have to actually accomplish something. If I had actually applied myself back in school, it would have benefitted me in ways large and small. Lesson learned. If the David Fabrizios of the world have their way, we will be sending young people out into the world totally ill-equipped to deal with its inherent unfairness. Coddling kids and giving them a false sense of their own value is educational malpractice and only produces a generation of self-deluded narcissists.