Tuesday, July 26, 2011

A Grade 6 Graduation Ceremony: Awkward

It's mid-summer, we've been to the cottage and back, and my daughters have put Grade 6 graduation behind them. I, too, have tried to forget about it—unsuccessfully. I've been brooding about the ceremony (held over four weeks ago), ruminating on aspects that gave me pause, caused me to wince or—worse—made me angry. I've hesitated to write about it here, but images of the event have persisted in my heat-addled brain, refusing to cede ground to more seasonally-appropriate thoughts. So here it is: my admittedly jaundiced take on one particular Grade 6 graduation and awards ceremony.

It began inauspiciously. Chairs were set up on the leafy lawn of the handsome, 90-year-old public school which my daughters, J and E, have attended since Grade 1. The setup looked pretty, as it always does when the school's Parent Association puts its collective mind (and applies its considerable financial muscle) to something. But just as parents, nannies, aunts, uncles and grandparents were piling out of their SUVs, it started to rain. Staff and parent organizers held out for several long minutes while freshly blow-dried hair wilted, and suits broke out in rain splotches. Finally, the principal called it, and guests were asked to bring their own chairs into the stifling, non-decorated gym.

But in the two and a half-hour ceremony that followed, physical discomfort on the part of guests was the least of the problems.

First there were the interminable speeches. Trustee, area superintendent, parent representative, vice-principal, principal—all spoke about how wonderful X Junior Public school is, how fortunate (read economically-blessed) we all are to have been associated with it. The local Trustee spoke first, turning to address the graduates sitting on benches facing the audience. His speech was the best of the lot. But though he spoke to the graduates, and made interesting points about different avenues to success, in the end he, like the others, seemed to speak for the benefit of, or with the intent of impressing, the adult members of the audience. True, there were student MCs and four student valedictorians, one for each graduating Grade 6 class. Their speeches were short and occasionally funny but, ultimately, they were minor blips in a sea of boring, adult self-congratulation.

Then the dispensing of awards began. There were prizes—small wooden plaques with the recipient's name engraved on them—in physical education, art, music, and French; there were also spirit, character and leadership awards (but, interestingly, given the emphasis on STEM in the TDSB, no science or math awards). I suspect I was not the only parent made uncomfortable by the way the awards were allocated and bestowed. In a misguided effort to be inclusive, several students were chosen to receive each award. So, for instance, the art prize was handed out to three students, the phys. ed. prize to four, and so on. While possibly a good idea in theory,* the result was that at least 70 per cent of the entire graduating class (of approximately 125 kids) received awards. That left a minority of kids who did not, which is far worse for the award-less than if only a few kids had been recognized. More troubling, regardless of their ostensible purpose, the awards seemed to celebrate the same types of kids. Art, music, and physical education plaques went to kids who were competent in those subjects, but who also—perhaps more importantly—demonstrated concomitant "leadership qualities." In other words, with the exception of the honor roll certificates and a prize for highest academic achievement, the awards were in fact "spirit" awards—validating kids for displaying the kind of meaningless "school spirit" I have critiqued elsewhere. So, the quiet, introverted, well-behaved kids, the ones who by default or by choice fall under the radar, were the ones who received nothing.

Given that I have twins in the same class who have completely different personalities, I feel I am uniquely positioned to understand the ramifications of such a system. Both my daughters made honour roll, but J also received an art award. Both she and her sister love art, but E is by far the better artist. She spends a great deal of her spare time creating and studying art, and has educated herself about technical matters not covered in the curriculum, such as shading and colour theory. But J is more outgoing, more obviously enthusiastic and less shy than E. J gets noticed, E does not. J gets the art prize, E does not. E was not upset (at least not overtly), but the irony was not lost on her or her sister. Both instinctively understood that the reward system favours a certain type of personality, irrespective of ability. The allocation of the actual "character," "leadership" and "spirit" prizes reinforced my daughters' understanding of how the system works. These awards were given out to a specific type of kid: the extrovert who exhibits the requisite level of school-sanctioned enthusiasm—at least outwardly.

The most surprising thing about this awards ceremony was not its unfairness, but how apparently oblivious the organizers were to its effect on the audience. After it was over, and we were relaxing at home, my daughters told a revealing story. The final event was the presentation of the graduation certificates, handed out by the Grade 6 teachers to their own students. My daughters' class was first, and their teacher read out each child's name, stipulating "with honours" for the kids who had made honour roll. He read out the first two names, adding "with honours" after each. Then he read the third name; no "with honours" followed. A friend of my daughters' leaned over to J and said, "awkward." Awkward. Exactly. The question is, if an 11-year-old understood this—immediately, intuitively—why didn't the adults in charge?

*One might ask, if inclusion is in fact the goal, why not go all the way, and reward each child for something he or she has achieved during elementary school (as this school in BC chose to do)? Or do we really believe that there are some children who have achieved nothing worthy of recognition?