How many competitions and awards ceremonies did your school participate in last spring?

At my school, we had the Athletics Spring Season Recap video assembly, Cum Laude Society Dinner, Science Olympiad, Tech Challenge Robotics State Championships, Foreign Language Poetry Competition, National Latin Exam, Mathcounts States, All-State Music Festival, The Sondheim Awards, The Seven Angels’ Theater HALO Awards Ceremony for Connecticut High School Theater, our own Drama Association end of the year banquet, the University Book Prize/Yearbook Assembly, and our all-school, end-of-the-year awards ceremony aptly named Prize Day. So many opportunities to say, in one form or another, “We won!” We love competition. We love prizes. We love winning. Or do we?

For Prize Day, we include grade-level prizes awarding two or three prizes per grade division. These awards are determined by the advisors and teachers who generally come in contact with those students. Every year during grade-level advisor meetings, without fail, there is at least one comment and often some debate about how unnecessary these awards are. Some teachers will even go as far as to say that the awards are harmful to the vast majority of students who do not receive anything.

Don’t get me wrong: I am not advocating for an award for all. One might wonder, however, looking at the list of competitions listed above how anyone could avoid receiving an award. My concern is in what spirit we compete and present these awards.

Celebrating Growth During My Schooling

I was a three-season athlete back in high school: soccer, indoor and outdoor track, and was a team captain for both track seasons. In addition to that, I was also the Senior Class President and President of the Student Council. I loved winning! Theater in my New Jersey public high school in 1986 was for the quiet kids; the kids who kept their heads down during the day and for one reason or another did not want to draw attention to themselves. Who would have guessed that I would find theater in college and make a career out of it as a high school drama teacher?

Even though I was active in my high school’s athletic program, I was keenly aware of competition within the department. Half way through the fall of my senior year, our varsity soccer team did not win many games, however, by then we still scored more points than the football team. (As a reminder for non-sports readers, football awards six points per touchdown; soccer awards one per goal.) Yet, the excitement and funding continued to flow towards the football team. Nowhere was this more evident than at the Homecoming assembly largely celebrating the football team. Ironically, as Student Council President, I organized and hosted that pep rally. In one final, inexplicable turn our football team did not win a single game that year but somehow made it to the cover of our yearbook.

The next year, I joined my freshman college soccer team. Around the same time, I auditioned for my first play: Moliere’s The Imaginary Invalid. I had one line, but I was hooked. I enjoyed the same teamwork previously experienced in athletics but reveled in the lack of competition more. We were not striving against each other. We were not fighting against another team. If anything, we were overcoming the challenges in the script, the production limitations and, more importantly, ourselves. The veteran actors supported and trained up the newbies; and, come opening night, the victory came in the form of applause. We celebrated our growth and accomplishments without it coming at the expense of anyone else. There were no losers.

Drama Department Ceremonies: Teary and Hilarious

Of all the awards ceremonies and celebrations hosted on campus this spring, I enjoyed the Drama Association banquet the best. I may be a little biased, but I believe the drama students understand the spirit of giving awards. The Association Heads create a series of awards that celebrate cast and crew members who might not receive awards anywhere else on campus; but they are not your typical Tony Award-type categories like Best Actor or Best Stage Management. The Drama Association banquet awards have titles like, “The Water Works Award” for a performer who cries profusely during a show; “The Golden Hammer” for the dedicated technician who quietly goes about their work to keep the set standing; the “Act Your Age” award for the actor who consistently plays roles either much younger or older than their actual age; and my favorite for this year, the “Troy Bolton Award” for the actor who is a dedicated varsity athlete most of the year but who, like the award’s namesake from High School Musical, takes a season off to participate in that year’s musical production.

The banquet concludes with a Senior Circle where the younger Association members celebrate the graduating seniors. Underclass students passionately haggle to present a rose and kind words to each senior no matter if they spent their high school career in the theater or if they had one non-speaking role their final year. Differing from participation awards, the Senior Circle does not come with a dye-cast medal on a ribbon, but a heartfelt thank you for the contribution the senior made to the drama department. It is probably no surprise that these are often teary and hilarious, but they are without a doubt given in the spirit in which I wish all awards were given – you made a difference to our group by being here; we are so happy and grateful you joined us. No one is mentioning these awards in their college interviews; no one is putting these awards on their resume; you will not see these awards in the yearbook no less the front cover, but, rest assured, these awards and kind words will stay with the recipients for their lifetimes.

There Are No Others

Over the years as a drama teacher, I have noticed the inequality between arts and athletics. Aside from the easy money the alumni association can pull for annual campaigns by appealing to former athletes, I fear there is a deeper cultural reason for our proclivity towards sports. Team sports teach us, among other things, that winning is great and losing is horrible. In every game, every competition, every championship, there is a winner and a loser. Teams that strive all the way to the finals are cast into despair as the result of one final score coming in second place. The winners get the trophy, the losers go home. There is plenty of talk of celebrating the second place team, but, if we are honest, disappointment is the prevailing emotion. The lesson: avoid losing; avoid being a loser. While this idea does not do good things for our psyche, it serves us well in society. No one can argue we all want to win the business account, win the lawsuit, win the war. This is what I call our “sports mentality.” We have been trained up for this level of success: to win. Where would we be without it? Losers?  No thanks. Unless…

I have often thought the difference between the sports and artistic mentalities was the difference between war and diplomacy. Instead of striving to defeat the opposing side, what would it be like to work together against a concept the way a cast works against production limitations? Once the business account is bestowed, the client and contractor will have to work together to create their product. Mediation is preferable to a lawsuit, but boring on television. I suspect that although there are countless diplomatic negotiations going on around the world, war makes it to the front page. These days, divisions are more and more prevalent in the political arena than they have been since the 1960s: Republican vs. Democrat; abortion issues; LGBTQ+ rights; Nationalism; antisemitism; just to name the top five.

What are we in fact training our students for? What do we hope they will win? How will they act when confronted with the “other”? Hindu Sage, Ramana Maharshi, was once asked, “How should we treat others?” He replied, “There are no others.” If only that were our educational and cultural mantra.

So, bring on Awards Season! But let us remember the purpose. Let us cheer our students on for outstanding academic achievements, let us award them the laurels of victory on the playing fields, and in equal measure, let us recognize the unique contributions they make to our schools and our lives. It may not take another assembly program to accomplish this either – perhaps this can be done on a daily basis with a quick, “I saw what you did to help that classmate; that was really kind of you.” Or, “Your contribution today put a smile on everyone’s face. Thank you for that.”

Awards don’t have to be medals or books or certificates for them to be carried for the rest of one’s life.