So many trophies, so little reason

Another year has gone by and I have no awards to show for it; but that's OK with me because I didn't do anything to deserve special recognition. This attitude doesn't mean I'm opposed to rewarding people for outstanding performances on the job, in school, or in community service. But sometimes I think too much emphasis on self-esteem and positive reinforcement will end up burying our society under a mountain of superfluous trophies.

A news story that crossed the wires in October illustrates my point. According to the AP, a lavish party was hosted by the Transportation Security Administration in November 2003. At the gathering, awards were presented to 543 TSA employees and the agency paid an event-planning company $81,767 for plaques.

For that price, I hope the honorees got more than just blocks of wood with nameplates glued on the front. What we may never know is how many other award ceremonies were held around the country that same night. Does any agency monitor the total number of plaques handed out each week? I have a strong suspicion it is massive.

The tellers at my bank branch who are named "Employee of The Month" receive small, personalized, clear-plastic paperweights that are placed in public view at each window. I'm sure the bank sees the award process as a way to promote individual and company pride. But the obvious glitch in this situation is that before too long, top-performing workers will run out of display space and be forced to store their prizes elsewhere.

This is also a frustrating issue for parents who have children enrolled in organized athletics. Multiple offspring participating in numerous youth sports quickly adds up to an enormous amount of commemorative hardware.

Which brings us to the issue no family likes to think about: What to do with aging, unwanted trophies? Unless the item is on a par with the America's Cup or an Olympic medal, most museums probably won't take it as a donation, no matter how much you beg and plead. Tossing them in the trash seems crude and inappropriate. Ditto for placing them on the "Free" table at a yard sale, or donating them to the local high school drama department for use as props in their next production of "The Odd Couple."

Perhaps someday I will have to deal with these questions, but for now I'm satisfied with my role as a perpetual nonrecipient of awards. And for everyone else who didn't get into any winner's circle this year, don't feel let down. Go look in a mirror and remember that being here is what counts. You don't need a trophy. You are the trophy.

Jeffrey Shaffer is an author and essayist who writes about media, American culture, and personal history.

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