Monday, June 27, 2016

Participation Ribbons

I am a Millennial. Born in 1988, I am slightly on the older side of Millennials, but still solidly Millennial.

I grew up with participation ribbons. I don't know anything about the psychology of childhood competitions pre-participation ribbon, but I'm sure it didn't stifle competition the way participation ribbons do.

Every kid knows that participation ribbons are bullshit. Only disabled kids proudly display participation ribbons. Most kids throw them in the trash by the end of the day. We still recognize that the bigger, shinier trophies belong to the winners, and that we are not "all winners just for trying." The winners hold the trophies, the losers hold the ribbons.


I never cared about athletic competitions. I was timid, had asthma, and was exceptionally averse to pain for a child. But I enjoyed academic competitions. I prided myself on being one of the smartest kids in the class. Unfortunately, academic competitions, especially when compared to athletic competitions, were rare at my school. We had Field Day and the Presidential Fitness Challenge ("Ooh, look, you got a certificate signed by that guy who's all over TV for getting a blowjob. Cool! Hey, what's a blowjob, anyway?"), and races and daily softball games. Most of the academic competitions were informal things, like a spelling bee during Language Arts, or timed math drills. No one "won," but we could compare ourselves to each other.

The only formal academic competition was the Geography Bee. However, only 4th and 5th graders could participate. In 4th grade, I still cared somewhat about competitions. I tried out for the Geography Bee that year, but was booted during qualifying rounds. I still remember the last question I missed - "What type of tree does cork come from?" I should have answered what was going through my head at the time: What the Hell does that have to do with geography? Instead, I just spit out the name of the first type of tree that came to mind - willow. Wrong. Sorry, kid, you might know all the names of all the capitals of the states and major world countries, but you don't know about trees, so you can't participate in the Geography Bee. Yes, I'm still bitter about that, why do you ask?

By 5th grade, I didn't care about competitions at all anymore. Yeah, getting kicked out during qualifiers the previous year may have had something to do with it, but it was more than that. The way schools approached competitions, they expected kids to participate in them only to have fun. And if you only cared about having fun, it was all well and good: you have fun, and you get a ribbon and a snack at the end. But if you cared about winning the competition, you would quickly realize that that type of competition was not a good scenario for you. If you're solidly at the top of your class in that area, you'll win by a landslide, guaranteed, and gradually all your classmates will despise you for making it "all about you" and taking the fun out of it for them. You get a cheaply-made trophy only your mom cares about, and your classmates hate you just a little bit more. If you try, and you don't win, you get a participation ribbon just like all the kids who showed up and didn't try, except you looked like a fool for caring about winning without being able to follow through. You carry the same sin as the kid who did win, without any bragging rights. In the end, you're left holding the same thing as the kids who didn't care. To them, the ribbon is a trifle to occupy their hands until recess. To you, it's an insult you carry with you until it's socially acceptable to throw it away. A badge declaring "Not Good Enough." At least standing there empty-handed leaves you in the same condition you were before you started. The ribbon stamps you a failure.

Yes, I entered the Geography Bee again in 5th grade. Partially because I didn't want to be someone who gave up after the first failure, but mostly because fuck them for asking that question. I didn't care about being better than my classmates, I had something to prove to the teachers.

Not only did I qualify that year, I won. I declined to go on to the regional competition, because my goal had been accomplished. I wasn't interested in the competition, I was interested in making a point.

Those kids who care about winning and often do while somehow maintaining good relationships with their peers end up being the stars in middle and high school. Either star athlete or star student or both.
Those who care about winning and often do, but don't have great interpersonal skills burn out sometime during middle school and just stop caring. They end up further behind socially every time they win and once they realize that, they shrink into the background to save face.
Those who only ever cared about having fun run the gamut from pretty good student to abysmal student. They are the majority who were never taught the value of exceptionalism. They wallow in mediocrity, firmly believe good enough is, in fact, good enough, and manage to simultaneously admire and despise those who excel.
Those who stopped caring about winning but still care about exceptionalism might go one of a few ways. They might simply grow angry and continue to compete, just to show they're still good enough, but not giving a shit how they stack up to their fellow students. They might grow angry and not compete, shrinking into the background, brooding. They might be content, accept their fate and quietly continue to better themselves. They might become jaded to the whole thing, decide there's no point in bettering yourself, and end up one of the worst students in the school. Then they might wake up one day, years later, decide to shake off the facade, and do something crazy like go to law school.

The only students who maintain that idea that competition is meaningful are those who did well in competitions in the first place. This is worrying because a spirit of competition is important if we want our country to continue to be a major global leader. But our education culture is killing that spirit in all but a small handful of students. We need to get back to purer competitions. Don't tell kids to just have fun. Try to win. Find out why you didn't, and improve yourself in that area so you have a better shot next time. Sure, in elementary school it should also be fun, but we need to teach kids the value in competition aside from its entertainment value.

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