When he was in the 11th grade, my oldest son became a member of the National Honor Society. While induction into this society is an accolade that most serious high school students would like to obtain, I think that the lasting merit for my son will be more from the lessons he learned during the application process than from the actual award itself.
These revelations began a year ago when my son - along with all the other 10th- through 12th-grade students with a GPA of 3.5 or better - received an invitation to apply to the National Honor Society.
It came as a typed letter with a request for the applicant to complete a brief fact sheet, seek a recommendation from an adult friend or mentor, and submit a one-page essay outlining his or her attributes of leadership, character, and service.
My son's reaction to the letter was somewhat indifferent. A few of his friends were dismissive of the award, and my son's only prior experience with honor societies was automatic induction into the French Honor Society when he consistently earned A's in French.
Perhaps he considered himself a shoo-in. But when I reviewed his application the night before it was due, I was surprised by how little effort he had expended. His "essay" was a few scribbled sentences, and his listing of awards and accomplishments was incomplete, at best.
I felt it would be apparent to anyone reviewing his material that he didn't give his application much thought.
Not surprisingly, his rejection letter came a few weeks later.
To his credit, my son was bewildered, embarrassed, and disappointed. He wasn't used to being passed over for academic recognition.
While I thought he had the credentials to receive the award, I knew that being turned down for lack of trying might hold an important lesson for my son about doing his best in future endeavors.
Sure enough, when his second invitation to apply came a year later, my son's attitude was markedly different from the year before. He asked me to brainstorm the essay and adult recommendation with him a full two weeks before the application was due.
While I was happy to offer guidance, I felt it was important that he earn this award strictly on his own merit - without editorial revisions from his mother or his father.
So I firmly decided that my role would be limited to being as supportive as I could and helping him think through the content of the essay. Thus, when he lamented his lack of formal leadership positions, I reminded him that he demonstrated leadership in other ways - through his actions and example with his younger brother and sister, with his younger piano-class peers, and with the other young people he worked with in volunteer activities.
I also reminded him that since his father and I had divorced, he had shown positive leadership as the firstborn, helping his mother with routine and not-so-routine chores around the house.
With these thoughts in mind, my son crafted a simple, yet telling essay describing an earnest young man who, if anything, was a bit self-effacing.
I read it, made a few grammatical comments, and then encouraged him to clean it up and turn it in.
It wasn't perfect, but it was good and I could tell he had done his best. I felt that his sincerity would shine through to those who read it.
Two weeks later the hoped-for acceptance letter came. With a whoop of joy my son read the letter.
He no longer took the award for granted and, more important, he reveled in knowing he had achieved the honor on his own: He was the one who called his pastor and asked him to write a recommendation. He had written the essay by himself, and he had achieved the grades and volunteer service hours.
Most important, he learned a valuable life lesson: that sometimes the things we want require extra effort, but the result is almost always sweeter than when the awards come on a silver platter.