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In Defense of Awards

Photograph by Getty Images

Most afternoons, our 11-year-old flings open the front door, dumps his backpack into the seat of a nearby chair, and scurries off to the backyard and his football. The greater distance he can put between himself and school, the better.

But two weeks ago, he stuffed his arm into the backpack's main pocket and started digging around. I could hear papers rustling, items shifting. Organization is not this child's strong point. Finally, after a few minutes, he pulled out a crumpled white sheet and handed it to me, a grin spreading from one ear to another.

"You'd better clear your calendar next Friday afternoon, mommy!" he said.

I smoothed out the paper. I'd been invited to an assembly where his middle school would honor students who earned at least a 3.0 on their previous report card. Our son got two As, a B and a C—a 3.25 GPA.

"Are you going to come, mommy?" he said, dancing from one foot to the other. "Do you think you can make it?"

This is a kid who struggled mightily throughout elementary school, a kid for whom grades have always meant one constant guilt trip.

"But he’s so smart!" his teachers always told us.

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"He needs to try harder," we agreed. And we tried to make him. We worked with him before school. After school. On weekends. Over vacations. Through temper tantrums and sulks, despite swearing (on both sides) and pencils snapped in half and papers ripped in two. We would not be the parents who let our child fritter away elementary school.

It wasn't until he slid so far that he nearly flunked out of fifth grade —no easy feat to manage—that we finally decided to invest thousands of dollars in extensive neuro-psychological testing. Turns out he has significant visual, auditory and organizational processing issues that make normal classrooms feel chaotic and bone-rattling to him.

I sat in the auditorium as the vice principal explained that, too often, we focus on what kids are doing wrong.

Today, he is in a special education classroom at our local middle school. The room is home to three teachers and no more than eight students at any given time. For the first time I can recall, he’s absorbing the curriculum. The other day, I showed him a story in National Geographic about the Roman ruins in Libya, hoping he would bring the magazine to show his ancient history teacher the next day. He spotted a map showing Tunisia, and recalled that this used to be ancient Carthage. Then he launched into a long explanation of the history of Carthage and how it related to the Roman Empire.

Oh my goodness, I thought. He’s actually learning history. Of course, I'd always expected him to learn at school. I’d just never seen it happen before.

However, as his work and study habits improved, he'd developed a new concern. "I'm the only one studying for my tests," he said when I asked him to go over the material one more time. "I'm the only one turning in my homework."

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That wasn't true. But he did feel pressure from other, less studious pupils, to dial his efforts down a little. Until, that is, the assembly invitation arrived.

"Of course I’ll be there, buddy," I told him. "How could I miss it?"

Last Friday, I sat in the auditorium as the vice principal explained that too often, we focus on what kids are doing wrong. This afternoon, he said, was the time to reward the kids doing something right.

He called one name, then another. The kids walked up to the front of the auditorium, shook his hand, got a certificate from the principal, and then joined the growing crowd of students on the stage. Then he called our son's name, and I watched our boy shake the hand, take the certificate and park himself in line on the stage.

He grinned. He bounced lightly on his toes. His eyes twinkled. There he was on stage, and everyone could see that he was not only smart. He hadn't only tried. He'd succeeded.

I got out my phone, turned on the camera app and took a picture.

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