Real life is nothing like T-ball — not everybody gets to win

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On the heels of last week’s discussion on the value of teaching girls to toughen up rather than coddling them and cushioning them from life’s various insults and inequities, I went over to the high school on Monday to take a photo of this year’s valedictorians.

Yes, plural. I can’t remember the last time Winters High School had only one valedictorian. There are always two or three. One year there were even five. This year, however, there were seven.


Another oddity — they were all girls. So, on the one hand, kudos to girls with brains. Kudos to girls who excel at math and science, as well as social sciences and the arts. But still … seven?

I asked one of them why so many, and she explained that everyone with a grade point average above 4.0 gets to be a valedictorian. I just nodded, “Oh,” and started lining them up. You know there are too many valedictorians when you have to stage them for a photo like you would a sports team — in rows.

Now, no offense to any of these bright young ladies. They were all completely lovely and cooperative, beautiful and bouncy, and something near and dear to my photographer’s heart — punctual. I wish them all the best and hope that life heaps nothing but bounty and blessings on each one.


They shouldn’t all be valedictorians.

And, at least one of them knew it, I think. After I took the photo, one girl quietly slipped to my side and asked if the actual grade point rankings would be printed. No, I told her, we just group all the valedictorians together and leave it at that. Just as quietly, she nodded, looking at the ground, and walked away, clearly disappointed with my response.

Who else would this matter to except the one who studied her butt off for four years, got the highest grade point average, and was then robbed of the reward of being declared the valedictorian? Sure, the scores may have been close, like a photo finish in horse racing. A seven-way dead heat would be a rare thing indeed. In horse racing, the officials have to step in, examine the facts and declare a winner, and only a dead heat when it truly exists. Winters High School could take a lesson from the Sport of Kings and do likewise. But, that’s uncomfortable, isn’t it. Kids today were raised on “Everybody gets a ribbon!”

I saw this trend starting when my own kids were growing up. Allowing children to experience losing, failing even, disappointment, crying a little if necessary, and then learning to shake it off and try again — oh heavens no! It might damage their self-esteem! It’s child abuse!

“It’s not how many times you fall down, it’s how many times you get back up.” ~ author unknown

Amen, author unknown.

So, while the seven valedictorians surely excelled in academics, they were denied a valuable life lesson: No matter how hard you try, how excellent you are, you don’t always win. Life isn’t like T-ball. Everybody doesn’t win all the time. In fact, everybody (with the exception of the rare lucky and gifted few) doesn’t win most of the time.

Everybody doesn’t get the gold medal. Everybody doesn’t get the guy or the girl, and the ring on his/her finger. Everybody doesn’t have the winning lottery numbers. Everybody doesn’t get the blue ribbon. Everybody doesn’t get the job, or the promotion. Everybody doesn’t get the crown, or the satin sash, or even accepted into the contest at all.

And yet, life marches on, and so must we — without dissolving into a pool of despair and self-loathing. Learning to accept failure, to dust yourself off and try again may be the single most important skill for navigating life without crashing on the rocks of self-defeat. Frank Sinatra even sang about it: “When I find myself lyin’ flat on my face, I pick myself up and get back in the race — that’s life!”

Just once, I’d like to hear them play “That’s Life” at a graduation ceremony, and instead of mortarboards, everyone gets a snappy derby hat. That would be the coolest graduation ceremony ever. Particularly if the grads all sang along.

So, this year, fine, everybody’s a valedictorian at Winters High School. Too late to do anything about it now. I propose that the high school abandon this practice going forward, because it’s neither realistic or fair. Moreover, it doesn’t prepare students for the real world. Just wait until all these students whose self-esteem is pinned on winning all the time get into universities, right along side a sea of students from other high schools who also believe that they can only win, and watch how fast reality yanks them up short. Everybody will NOT get an A. In fact, not everyone will even pass.

And that’s life, kids.

If Winters High School wants to honor students with above 4.0 grade point averages, give them a special tassel or sash, or a special scholarship. Honor academic excellence, absolutely. But allow the true valedictorian to claim her or his spot at The Top of the Class, and only in the case of a true tie should there be more than one. The consolation prize goes to the next highest GPA — the salutatorian. I can’t remember the last time Winters High School even had a salutatorian because they have so many valedictorians.

All that said, being No. 1 isn’t everything. There are surely C-average kids in the Class of 2014 who worked their tails off to get those grades, and overcame all sorts of difficulties and setbacks to do so. Ironically, they — not the gaggle of valedictorians — may have learned the most valuable lesson of all: hard work and determination will carry you forward. No, it wasn’t easy. But you got there. Now keep going. Every time you don’t give up, you win.

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