My school valued smart people. My school promoted smart people. My school made the less than genius students feel incredibly stupid and like we weren’t trying hard enough. My school disseminated all of these feelings of mediocrity through one genius thing called Awards Assemblies.
These assemblies occurred once a quarter when our entire grade would file into the gym, in full assembly uniform and listen to our teachers hand out certificates of achievement to the same 7 people. These were certificates of achievement that said “you are the best in your subject, or have the highest grade in my class” to the winning student, and “you aren’t trying hard enough and are lazy” to the rest of us. The best times would be when the same student would win several awards in a row, and we would all look around and mouth the name of the winning student to each other. Or when an adoring teacher would ask a student to just stay up a the podium, because it would just be too tiresome for the student to return to their seat as they would be getting 4 more awards afterwards.
But after every display of public adoration, the real icing on the cake would arrive when our principal would say, “If you want to come up here and get an award, you know what to do! maybe we’ll see you up here next time!”
Now, to be fair, our school made some effort to make us all feel included in the special honor of getting an award. If you followed the rules of the school, you would get a citizenship and effort award. And we all knew who would not be receiving these awards through their reputation. But just to guilt these students as much as possible, our names were called out in alphabetic order, and we were all sitting in alphabetic order. So everyone knew if you didn’t get the award.
Luckily for me, I was a goody two shoes at that point, so I always got the award. And yet, despite following the rules, every time they got to the ‘N’ section of the alphabet, I would be seized with a panic wondering if I would get the award. Not logical. No sense behind it. But the power of my school. And after getting up to get the citizenship and effort awards, I would be seated for the rest of the ceremony. As the English, Math, Science, History, etc. awards were called.
But we would always be dismissed with a sense of hope for the next semester after our principal’s encouragement to try a bit harder the next time. This system continued all throughout my time at school. Subtle criticism of your personal failure to be a genius. It just became less painful. But the system succeeded in two things every time: I would always maintain hope for getting an award, and I left the school with below average self-esteem. That’s why I’m a writer.