Winning With Purpose

I’ll never forget an end-of-the-year assembly at my children’s elementary school several years ago. It was always a special day—one that I would mark on my calendar months in advance. Nobody got my time on this day other than my children.

This particular year’s assembly was business as usual. A group of bright-eyed, beautiful children ages four to fourteen sitting cross-legged on the floor, anxiously waiting to hear their name called.

The prize was running to the front of the room, grabbing an 8.5 x 11-inch award, and holding it across their chest with great pride. The parent paparazzi snapped photos.

For the younger kids (preschool through second grade), the school plays by the everyone’s-a-winner rule. Each class is called up and awards are passed out one by one.

While I prefer a little competition when it comes to awards, I try to contain myself. “Try” being the operative word.

The previous year, my son received the “rule follower” award, which melted my heart. My 89-year-old grandfather always says, “Katherine, there’s only two types of people in this world: rule followers and rule breakers.” Being a staunch rule follower himself, I knew my grandfather was pleased to see my son falling on that side of the divide. Especially since I’m 622 miles on the other side of that divide. Regularly.

This year, Alex received the “amazing athlete” award.

My reaction: “Interesting.”

My husband’s reaction: “Now that’s an award! Way to go, son!”

My daughter’s class was up next. These first graders waited anxiously to hear their names called. Last, but not least, Layla was given the “fantastic friend” award.

The previous year she received the “extraordinary effort” award, which I loved (I mean, really loved), but being a good friend seemed like a positive attribute too.  

Once they finished giving awards to the younger kids, the game changed for the older kids (grades three through eight). In this age group, not everyone gets an award—only the people who go the extra mile and perform at the highest standards.

As they went grade by grade, calling only the top students to come forward, a couple things went through my mind. (Remember: I have gerbils in my mind)

  • I wonder which subjects Layla and Alex will master by third grade, so they can start winning real awards?
  • I wonder what I can start doing to help them prepare?
  • I wonder how many awards one child is allowed to win?

I’m very competitive (in case you haven’t noticed).

Meanwhile, I’m sure Richard was either thinking about our dinner plans, his Twitter feed, or how lame these awards were compared to being an amazing athlete.

Then, I started thinking about McKenzi, an eighth-grader at the school with special needs.

When awards get competitive, it means amazing kids like McKenzi don’t win. McKenzi won’t win the gold star for math facts, or the social studies star, or grab the coveted creative writing award.

My heart sank, and I started to feel really uncomfortable. Damn these awards. Everyone should get one. Absolutely everyone. While the awards-for-everyone philosophy goes against everything I believe in, I also really believe in McKenzi. Deeply.

And I may believe in McKenzi’s godmother even more. She’s at every single school event, standing right beside McKenzi. Holding her hand, keeping her calm, whispering in her ear. During every awards assembly, every school musical, every field trip, and every field day. You name it, she’s there.

Hell, I thought. McKenzi’s godmother should be getting an award today, too. An award for never showing up late, never losing her temper, never saying McKenzi can’t do it, never leaving McKenzi’s side, never giving up.

McKenzi and her godmother deserved an award, and they weren’t going to get one, damnit. 

It made me sad, and I vowed to cool my jets on being so competitive when it comes to kids winning awards at school. I even contemplated telling the head of the school to find a way to give McKenzi an award next year. She deserved one for God’s sake.

The academic awards were wrapping up, and I started packing up my stuff. But, like most good awards shows, they saved the best for last.

One of the teachers stood up to give the final award: the community service award.

The teacher told a story about a young girl who went above and beyond the 20-hour requirement and completed 86 hours of community service. There was an audible gasp in the room. Talk about humbling. 

And then, they told the story of an even more accomplished child, one who had completed 267 hours of community service!

And her name was McKenzi.

Holy Mary Mother of You-Know-What.

Here’s what I learned from McKenzi yesterday that I will remember for the rest of my life:

  1. Don’t chase awards you can’t win. That’s just crazy.
  2. Figure out the one thing you do really well, and do it better than anyone else.
  3. Don’t do it for the recognition, but if you happen to get some, clap for yourself as you walk up to receive your award.

I was so proud of McKenzi, as she walked across the stage. And of her godmother, who had probably been right next to McKenzi during every one of those 267 hours. So, technically speaking, as a team they completed 534 community service hours.

But here’s my favorite part. . .

The school didn’t need to change their award policy and give every student an award, because that would be lame. And they didn’t have to create a special award for McKenzi, because that’s not what McKenzi wants or needs.

McKenzi won her own damn award.

Like true winners do.

Katherine Wintsch