Prize fighter

Prize fighter

prize fighter

As the end of the year arrives, Kate Sidley focuses on the awards and accolades.

One of the most treasured books in my bookshelf is a thick paperback of The Collected Works of Dorothy Parker, the American poet, short story writer and satirist. Stuck into the inside front cover of the book is a paper certificate from my high school, acknowledging the then-me for the winning entry in the school essay competition.

My high school career was rather short on accolades and achievements. I fancied myself something of a rebel (that’s emo teenage girl speak for demotivated and depressed), and as such affected a cool disregard for silly things like prizes and accolades and prefectships. But I was flipping delighted with this one. First, it was for writing, which I loved and thought I might be good at. Secondly, I adored Ms Parker’s sly wit and powers of observation – she was exactly the kind of writer I enjoyed reading and hoped to be. But the main reason for my joy in this prize – a reason I don’t know whether I even knew at the time – was that the English teacher whom I greatly liked and admired, had seen me. Properly seen me. She’d acknowledged my particular talent, the one I most cared about, and then, for the prize, she’d chosen the exact perfect book for me.

I still remember my son’s first brush with prizegiving glory. He was aged about five, and he came home from school proudly displaying a smiley face badge on his shirt. It was his for the week, in recognition of his ‘being a kind friend’. OK, so the smiley badge did the rounds, everyone got it for a week, but nonetheless he was thrilled and I was deeply proud. Seriously, it’s basically the top prize – what’s more important than kindness?

Every year at this time, we’re at some school prize-giving with its songs, shiny silverware, and handshakes from the principal. Who doesn’t love seeing their child being recognised and rewarded? I mean, let’s face it, parenting is jolly hard and often thankless work. There are no certificates coming our way for making school lunch every darn day for 13 years, so the ones our kids bring home for maths or soccer or perseverance will just have to do. It’s hard not to imagine that those accolades are actually for us. In fact, after prize-giving, you see the parents congratulating each other!

I enjoy my children’s successes as much as any parent, but I’ve become increasingly cynical about the results-based rewards system in schools. We want kids to delight in learning, to explore openendedly, to play games because it’s fun, to put in the effort because that’s what you do. But we reward them for getting over 75%.

The perceptive Ms Parker once said, ‘If you want to know what God thinks of money, just look at the people he gave it to.’ I might borrow her phrasing, and suggest, ‘If you want to know what the school values, just look at what it gives prizes for.’

The children who are naturally gifted in the areas that are valued by the schooling system get high grades and win awards. There’s a flush of pleasure, of course, but I wonder what it really means to them. And I think of the kids who have learning or attention or personal problems. The kids who might put in remarkable effort just to get average marks. And I wonder how powerful a well-deserved, well-considered acknowledgement from a thoughtful, perceptive teacher might be.

My kids have outshone their mother in the accolades and awards department. The fridge is bristling with their certificates and photographs. But I can’t imagine that any one of them brought the recipient more delight and
encouragement than The Collected Works of Dorothy Parker brought me.



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