Senior awards night at the High School, a poignant, heart-wrenching fiasco. There were a few shining moments when someone truly deserving got their moment in the spotlight. The remainder was gilding lilies.
A young man I know, a friend of my son, was particularly overlooked. For four years he had labored long and mightily on committees, on the school paper, taking photos, volunteering his time, struggling to maintain his grades even though his home life is less than ideal. He did receive an award for excellence – inexplicably in a subject he isn’t all that excellent in. Perhaps they were short on candidates for that rather backwater subject and his name came up. But the four years of work invested in his passion went completely unrecognized and unsung.
An elite group of the anointed went up multiple times, collecting piles of certificates in one area after another. My deserving young man kept having to get up to let them pass by him to go up to the stage. It must have been humiliating. And when he did get called for his one award, they bobbled his name.
My own son, a shy misfit used to being dissed and ignored, shrugged it off when they called him up for his single moment of praise (they couldn’t avoid it – he spent his class time doing extra credit projects for fun, and taught the teacher how to use the drafting software) and they butchered his name to “Gerkin.” I kid you not. I nearly stood up in the auditorium and screamed.
The woman I was sitting with was seething when they announced the scholarship winners. When one of the anointed got up, multiple certificates in hand, to receive a gift supposedly reserved for deserving students in financial need, my friend hissed, “His father is an orthopedic surgeon!” Guess they overlooked that little detail.
I suppose all this resonates with me because the writer’s life so closely parallels this sort of travesty. One labors over work and leaps through hoops, struggling to be recognized for excellence in the passion of your life, only for the bastards to pass you over while some other son of a bitch walks off with baskets of glory. Bookstore and library shelves swell with volumes of one particular author’s work (some of which were actually written by someone else while the Big Name plays golf and dictates his next big idea to a lackey tagging after him) and unknown genius languishes in the shadows.
Often what a writer does get paid and praised for is dog work, not the passion. “Oh, I loved your article in the Monitor on Yard Sales!” Thanks. Now, will somebody please publish and praise the novels I have invested my heart and soul in?
My eyes sting along with the young man sitting down there in the second row of the auditorium, watching the golden elite with pretty blushes and modest smiles run past him up onto the stage, while he sits there with his one, pat-on-the-head certificate.
Life is unfair. Ever heard that? I’ll wager every single one of you could easily come up with enough examples to fill a book: The well-connected old-boy executive hired over five others far better qualified; the lucrative government contract awarded to the corporation who just happened to make the biggest campaign contribution; the poverty-plagued schools who struggle while affluent parents lavish gifts on the already well-endowed; the quiet dark student in the back of the room whose creative brilliance goes unrecognized in the glare of the outgoing blond athlete sitting in front.
Life is unfair, so just suck it up and deal, right?
No. Quite the opposite. Let us each do our damnedest to be as fair as we can, every day, to each other and to our children. Take the moral high ground, don’t just go along with the pressure to hire the chairman’s buddy because, hey, he’s a nice guy. Look for the quiet dark student in the back of the room. Pick up a book by an author you’ve never heard of. Make a stink when you spot corruption and don’t just shrug off “business as usual”. Don’t let the bastards get away with it.
And question the purpose of awards ceremonies. As good as the intention might be, the reality is that singling out one person for excellence demeans the accomplishments of someone else. Shining a spotlight on one necessarily leaves many others in the dark, sending the subtle message that their efforts are somehow less worthy. And don’t offer the flimsy justification that the process fosters healthy competition; competition sets us against one another, and there is nothing healthy in that.
In the struggle for justice – and excellence – cooperation is essential. And it must be recognized that everyone’s efforts are needed, and worthy.