This weekend, a Wellesley High School English teacher gave a commencement speech to the graduating class that went viral.
David McCullough told the graduates, "Across the country no fewer than 3.2 million seniors are graduating about now from more than 37,000 high schools. That's 37,000 valedictorians ... 37,000 class presidents ... 92,000 harmonizing altos ... 340,000 swaggering jocks ... 2,185,967 pairs of Uggs," he said. "Even if you're one in a million, on a planet of 6.8 billion that means there are nearly 7,000 people just like you."
McCullough added, ""You've been pampered, cosseted, doted upon, helmeted, bubble wrapped ... feted and fawned over and called sweetie pie….You see, if everyone is special, then no one is. If everyone gets a trophy, trophies become meaningless. ... We have of late, we Americans, to our detriment, come to love accolades more than genuine achievement."
When I heard this speech, I—along with many, many others—thought, 'yay! Finally someone is being honest. Someone is not feeding these kids with more bologna than they've already been served. Someone is telling it like it is.
I was instantly reminded of my daughter's softball team a few years ago. She was in fourth grade and played on a league in the San Fernando Valley. If a kid swung and missed, they were cheered. "Good swing!" If a kid hit a foul ball into the street, they were cheered. "Great way to connect!" If a kid ran to a base and was tagged out, they were cheered. "Great running!"
And the coaches made a point of never mentioning who won or lost the games (mostly because my daughter's team always lost).
"Every girl is a winner when they're out on the field," the coaches would say. "There are no losers."
These coaches thought they were doing a great job. No one cried. No one pouted. They kids were pretty happy all the time. And my daughter did have fun, but she learned nothing about good sportsmanship. And worse than that, when the season ended, she still had no idea how to play softball. She thought hitting the ball into the street was a good thing— a literal home run because the ball often landed near someone's home. She also thought the object of the game was to get tagged by the opposite team.
She believed her team always won. When I told her the truth, she was shocked. "Your team lost every game they played. And that time when you swung and missed, you lost the game for them."
"No, when I swung and missed, I won the game for them. Remember? Everyone cheered for me. I won a trophy. Most improved player."
"The coaches cheered because they didn't want you to feel bad," I said. "And everybody got a trophy."
McCullough's speech also reminded me of an event from my own childhood. When I graduated from grammar school, a bunch of kids won trophies for academics. It seemed most of the kids who won had moms who were teachers at the school. I didn't win anything and I left graduation feeling ashamed. I believed I'd let my parents down. It seemed a trophy was a mark of something really important. If you didn't win a trophy, you were destined for loserville. To me, the trophy givers were clairvoyants who could somehow see into my bleak future.
As we were leaving the ceremony, the principal came up to my parents and me. She was an old woman with a permanent scowl etched on her face. During my eight years in elementary school, I'd never talked to her. Actually, it seemed you only talked to her if you were in trouble. I was too afraid of her to ever get in trouble.
Was I in trouble now?
She smiled at me and said, "Those awards mean nothing. It's what you do with your life that matters. Let's see where all those award winners are ten, twenty years from now."
Why she singled me out, I have no idea. Was it obvious that I had been upset? Or was it something she told a bunch of us non winners? It didn't matter—at that moment I felt like she saw something in me that I couldn't see yet, that the award-givers couldn't see yet. And I felt instantly better.
Years and years later, I have no idea what happened to any of those thirteen year-old award winners, but I still remember those words. I learned how much more important her comments were than any award I could have won that day. And how silly trophies really were—whether they are given to every member of a softball team or to a select few.