It’s that time of year: graduation season. I see former students moving from Middle to Upper/High School, from K-12 to college, from college to life or graduate school – many, many photos of graduation gowns and parties, comments about how much they’ll miss the people with whom they’ve made whatever journey they’ve made, and some trepidation about What’s Next.
At many of the official celebrations, there will be Recognition Time. Honor students might have an additional cowl, or gold tassel, or some other signifier. Departmental or athletic honors may be read out. There may be readings or performances by those at the top of their discipline. I’ve often thought about the process by which we on the faculty go through to determine who gets which and why.
At one school I worked at, a Quaker institution, the Testimony of Equality led to the belief that no one should be singled out for an achievement – GPA wasn’t important, for example. I appreciated this, having attended high school during the 70s, at a time in Emma Willard’s life when teachers determined whether a class was A-F or Pass/Fail, thus making GPAs very difficult to calculate (Dance? A-F. Economics? Pass/Fail.). Instead of a valedictorian, we voted on one classmate to speak for us. Friends Seminary didn’t quite do that, but the feeling was the same: we celebrate everyone’s achievement, not single out an individual.
My next school, PCS, did give out awards. The Middle School was particularly difficult: for years, every member of the 8th grade class got an award (as there were never more than 20 in the class, it was a little easier to arrange than if there had been many, many more). One year the only boy in the class got the “Most Easygoing” award because we just couldn’t think of anything else. Needless to say, no one really felt a sense of accomplishment when they were given their awards.
The problem is that everyone wants to be remembered for Just One Thing. It may be their academic record, or a particular piece of work they are really, really proud of. It may be an athletic achievement. Or an artistic one. It may be that they want to be remembered for their kooky fashion sense, or their ability to always find a parking spot near the door. Rarely are the various student-voted-on Wills/Testaments or Best Lists what people really want to be remembered by (in public school, I remember the Best Couple breaking up shortly before their Official Photo – imagine looking back at that photo at the end of the school year, much less as an adult!). Yet we rarely give the students, or ourselves, the opportunity to celebrate their Just One Thing.
The other problem is the ephemeral nature of that One Thing. Records may be broken. Memories fade. Goalposts move (my mother got 1600 on her SAT, a perfect score in the 1950s but today that number gets a “well, there’s always community college” look). People change. Do I really want to be remembered as my high school self? Does anyone?
Despite that, I’d love to see schools move away from GPAs and Honor Societies and Best Junior Writing Awards and more towards letting the students choose their award. Why not list “[name] read every book in the Discworld series this year” or “[name] finally learned to play Chopsticks (as well as eat with them!”? It might surprise everyone how we see ourselves.