By Melanie Howard
July 15, 2015
IDEAS
Melanie Howard has written for SELF, Glamour, Cosmopolitan and other publications.

Let’s get this straight: I was never valedictorian, salutatorian or whatever they called the third person on the platform at high school graduation. However, if I were graduating this year, by virtue of not completely disgracing myself academically, I might have earned top honors. This year, Washington-Lee High School in Arlington, Virginia, boasted a stunning 117 valedictorians — more than a quarter of the graduating class. Some schools have a more modest 20 or 30, while others did away valedictorians altogether. Kumbaya! By eliminating the elitist concept of a top scholar, educators have made everyone a super-achiever. Except, of course, they haven’t. All they’ve done is deprive a student who has worked his or her whole life toward a singular academic goal of the recognition he or she deserves.

This is the natural outgrowth of the “participation” trophy, which was supposed to make our kids feel good about showing up for sports and not hitting anyone. The participation trophy was a great idea for four year olds, who have a really hard time with those two goals. Unfortunately, the idea has grown and persisted. Now kids get awards for nothing well beyond the age of reason, when they all realize it is a sham. Unfortunately, their parents are not as enlightened.

One of my proudest parental moments was when my eight-year-old son announced that he didn’t want a trophy because his basketball team had lost every single game and for the most part behaved atrociously while doing it. I backed him on this, refused to pay my $5.99, and was given a lecture by the coach on how trophies build self esteem. My son has plenty of self esteem. (He once told me he wished he were twins, because who could be more awesome to hang out with than himself?) He also has always had self respect. Too much, in fact, to take that bogus trophy. “I’d rather wait until I win something,” he said.

Supposedly, naming multiple valedictorians also builds self esteem. I disagree. If you are the valedictorian, you’ll have to explain to college admissions officers and others why your valedictory status is better than that of the other 116 lucky winners from your school, hoping they believe you. Meanwhile, valedictorian number 117 is probably dreading the college interview where and admissions officer catches on, and he has to explain that he’s not exactly that valedictorian. Kids are not stupid. Back in the participation-trophy age, parents and coaches were strictly admonished not to keep score on the soccer field and basketball court. We didn’t have to. Kids who could barely count past ten were doing a great job of it.

Here’s another thing that’s unfair about this concept: It only equalizes the playing field in one area. No one is suggesting that the school field 117 quarterbacks, crown 117 homecoming queens or let 117 students take turns singing the lead in the musical. True, academics are more important – the raison d’être of school – but all the more reason to reward outstanding achievement rather than dilute and obscure it.

Finally, let’s talk about the future, beyond high school and college. Some of the school officials and students interviewed in the coverage of Washington-Lee’s valedictory mania said having just one valedictorian made things too competitive. But competition, for better or worse, is the world we live in. Students will have to compete for their first job, and every job, bonus or promotion after that. How can we expect excellence in our soldiers, our municipal workers, our doctors and our executives if they’ve been taught from peewee soccer on that mere participation is a virtue and that achievement is an embarrassment?

We are currently in an election cycle where, at last count, there were 15 declared Republican candidates and four declared Democrats. No one is suggesting we just play nice and have nineteen presidents for the next four-year term, or even just the top six. There will be one winner. He or she will be called the President and will give an inaugural address and will move into the White House. The good news is the other eighteen will not be garbed in sack cloth and ashes and forced to march down Pennsylvania Avenue to the sound of jeers. They will go back to their lives and careers.

This is the other essential our educators have forgotten. This is not Talladega Nights, in which Ricky Bobby famously proclaimed “If you ain’t first, you’re last!” Just because there is a winner, doesn’t mean everyone else is a loser. There is no dishonor in not being valedictorian. In fact, many of us who were ranked second or fifth or 376th in our classes have survived with no lasting signs of trauma. Some have gone on to do amazing things. In the words of Winston Churchill, “Success is not final, failure is not fatal: it is the courage to continue that counts.” Let’s teach our children to deal with not being number one, to give the valedictorian a round of rousing applause and to move on.

Contact us at editors@time.com.

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