The first time I participated in the Clay County Spelling Bee, I was in the fourth grade. I studied Eaton’s True Blue Speller every day for months prior to the contest and Mom drilled lists of words with me each night before I went to sleep.
The day of the contest, I felt confident about my chances of advancing to the finals. After a couple rounds, our school’s sixth grade teacher entered the room and made a list of contestant numbers on the chalkboard, denoting who had too many misspellings and was out of the competition. One by one my fellow comrades in spelling would pick up their pencils and exit the room. I hoped my number would not show up on the board anytime soon.
As the number of students dwindled, I attempted to focus on the spelling words and not on the remaining competitors. Ten dropped to eight and finally, only six students were left.
That is when my number showed up on the board, written in Mr. Aufdenkamp’s distinctive handwriting.
I was crushed. Hadn’t I studied enough? I gathered the pile of yellow number two pencils and exited the room empty handed, except for the Ticonderoga No. 2s.
No participation ribbon. No trophy. Just a burning desire to do better, which I did the next four years.
That blast from my past came to mind this weekend while reading an article about Pittsburgh Steeler linebacker James Harrison and his take on trophies earned by his sons at a football camp sponsored by former Steeler Charlie Batch.
On his Instagram account, Harrison shared a photo of two trophies, each with an inscribed nameplate reading “Best of the Batch Next Level Athletics Student-Athlete Award.”
In the caption Harrison wrote, “I came home to find out that my boys received two trophies for nothing, participation trophies.”
The Steeler went on to commend his sons for their efforts and everything they do, nothing that he will encourage them every day, but the trophies will be given back until they earn a trophy.
Clap. Clap. Clap. Standing ovation.
I have never believed in an giving an award just for the sake of giving an award. I blame it on my years as a teacher and coach, but handing out a ribbon just for being present sends a wrong message and rewards mediocrity and in some instances, apathy.
No, I favor earning a ribbon, medal or trophy by actually earning it, whether it be at a spelling bee, the county fair or a volleyball tournament.
Sure, participation ribbons may stroke a kid’s ego when handed to him or her, but in the long run, it sets a precedent for minimal expectations. That’s a bad example and mindset. It encourages a sickening sense of entitlement, which seems to run rampant.
Harrison went on to write, “Sometimes your best is not enough. That should drive you to want to do better … not cry and whine until somebody gives you something to shut u[sic] up and keep you happy.”
Spoken like a true winner, Mr. Harrison.