You are so cute. The picture is so creative. Even though you didn’t answer the question, your essay was so well written. That dress makes you look pretty. You have a great deal of potential. You are a winner. You are the best in your class. Here’s your trophy. Don’t forget your ribbon.
The value of the phrases above continues to erode as they are overused and misappropriated. What started at as a well-intentioned effort to instill the young with self-confidence is turning into mass coddling all the way through high school and beyond.
We are no longer teaching people to overcome adversity and strive for excellence. We are teaching them to avoid the obstructions in their path and to accept mediocrity. We used to instruct the young in how to climb the wall; now we just tell them to go around it or, better yet, we build them stairs!
A case in point is the recent June graduation of students at Niagara Falls High School in Niagara Falls, NY. The high school class of 2009 featured not one, but 18, valedictorians. According to The Buffalo News, school officials decided to do away with class rankings and valedictorians out of a sense of “fairness.” (1)
One student, Kelly O’Brien, had set her sights on earning the top spot. She was rightly disappointed when she found out there was not going to be one. O’Brien wanted to climb the wall, but misguided adults had turned the wall into a platform for 18, mounted by steps.
How “fair” was that? Do O’Brien and the others striving for the top agree it was “fair” to them? Are we now satisfied with a tie?
I know I am not satisfied with that. I do not care if you crush me; I still want you to play me. I want you to give it all you’ve got. I do not want mercy. I want a battle. If I lose, so be it, but I will hold my head up, knowing I fought the fight. I was there. I dripped sweat. I lost blood. I gave it my all. No one can take that away from me, unless they suddenly say that everything will end in a tie as it now does in Niagara Falls.
We are getting rid of honors in the pursuit of “equality.” We are eliminating victory in the name of “self-esteem.” In so doing, we are perpetrating an injustice against the young. We are sending them into a hard, cold world after ripping out their spines.
I have two young boys. The oldest will be three in September and the youngest two at the end of November. Of course, I coddle them. Of course, I tell them their artwork is wonderful. Of course, I tell them how smart, strong, creative and awesome they are. I tell them all the time. For their place in life right now, I am telling them the truth.
When it is no longer the truth, I will no longer tell them. If they are sculpting the figure of a woman for a high school art class and it looks like the return of The Blob, I am going to tell them to do it again. If they write a paper and I believe they could do better, I will say so.
I will not tell them lies. I will not bolster their “self-esteem” at the expense of their ability. I will expect them to climb the wall and, because I expect it, they will climb it.
The “self-esteem movement” started out at the elementary level and that is where it should stay. Pass out trophies to everyone. Give everyone a blue ribbon. Put a star next to all their names on the wall. Up to the fifth or sixth grade, that is fine.
After that, it is time to start telling them the truth. It is time to start allowing them to lose. It is time to start letting them fail. It is in losing, we learn to fight harder to win. It is in failing, we learn to try again and again until we get it right. Losing and failing teach us a valuable lesson. They teach us to climb the wall.
Losers should not get trophies. Failures should not get accolades. Stages should not be crowded with valedictorians.
The greatest teacher I ever had in my life was Avis Meyer in the Communications Department at Saint Louis University. He told the greatest stories. He also never gave out A’s. It was so bad that all the students began to call him Avis “B” Meyer, because that was the highest grade you could receive from him.
He assigned a big paper in one of his classes. I worked so hard for him. I gave it my all. I spent weeks on that paper. I knew it was good. I thought I had it. The day Avis handed the paper back to me was one of the greatest days of my life. In blood red ink, Avis had scrolled a giant A- at the top of my paper. Yes, there was a minus, but still, Avis “B” Meyer had given me an A! I had climbed the wall and it felt good!
We need to push the young to do better. We need to make them dig down deep inside themselves and find the strength to carry on. We need to make them work for it. We need to make them earn it.
We need to build a wall and make them climb it. It is in the climbing that they will find the strength within themselves. It is in the climbing that they will grow. It is in the climbing that they will become the best that they can be. We need to get our trophies, ribbons, stars and false honors out of their way.
Thanks to Steve Auckly for his suggestion about the Niagara Falls graduation, which led to the writing of this column.