Showered With an Accolade

I remember listening to the radio when Cal Ripken Jr. of the Orioles tied Lou Gehrig's record of 2,131 consecutively played games. The packed stadium had risen to its feet, cheering wildly as Ripken took a victory lap of the field, yielding to the emotion of the moment, waving his hat to his adoring fans.

Some of the people I spoke with afterward sniffed at his achievement. "So what?" said one. "He came to work. Big deal."

But I resonated immediately with his accomplishment. For I once had a similar experience, of which I was (and continue to be) immensely proud. It happened during my high school years.

I attended an all-boys prep school in New Jersey in the early 1970s. From Day 1, we were put through our paces, all of the classes seeming to bear the tag "advanced" or "accelerated." Some of the textbooks were written by committee, such as the "Earth Science Curriculum Project." (That's where I learned to avoid anything in academia produced by a committee.) In short, the assumption on the part of the school was that all of us would go on to college. Any talk of a technical trade warranted the scrutiny of the principal.

The thing was, I was an average student. You can imagine how befuddled I was when I constantly found myself being dropped into "advanced placement" classes, reading textbooks that eschewed concrete, comprehensible terminology in favor of "concepts." I managed to scrape by in these classes, never sure of what exactly it was that I was supposed to learn.

As the four years passed, I showed a bit of strength in the life sciences and foreign languages. But I was a middleweight: There were boys for whom these fields were self-evident. By the beginning of senior year, they were clear standouts. That's when talk of graduation awards began to echo in the lockered hallways.

Graduation awards? I remember standing at my locker one day when a friend told me that Ben Cilini was in line for "Best in Math." I had no idea what he was talking about. "Yeah," he said, giving me a poke in the arm. "And Paul Juniewicz is best in Spanish." Then he put his hand to his chin and brooded. "I don 't know who's gonna be best in Latin."

This was my first inkling that there were such awards. They soon became an important topic of conversation. The faculty was electric about it, and its enthusiasm was easily transmitted to impressionable teenage boys. But it had no effect upon me, for as I said, I was just keeping my head above water.

And then, one day, the vice principal collared me in the hallway. "Congratulations," he said. "You 're in line for a graduation award."

My eyes popped wide open. Me? What on earth for? Best in being average?

The vice principal leaned down to me. "Perfect Attendance," he confided, as if it were privileged information. Then he disappeared into his office.

I couldn't believe it: perfect attendance. Then I reflected. Yep, it was true. I hadn't missed a day of high school. Suddenly I felt the weight of responsibility descend upon my shoulders like the Rock of Gibraltar. It was only February. I had to hold out until May. Then I, too, would get to march up on stage and receive a graduation award.

As it turned out, my sense of accomplishment gave me the fortitude to redouble my efforts to be the perfect attendee. And as a sort of bonus, my grades edged up a bit. I considered myself to be in the same league as Cilini and Juniewicz, along with several others whose names I have since forgotten.

I recall that hot, humid spring evening of graduation. The gym was packed with students, parents, and friends. The faculty was sitting in a line on stage in metal folding chairs. The principal stood at the lectern and began to announce the awards: Best in Math, Best in Science, Best in Spanish.... I watched as these academic superstars rose to explosive applause and the blitz of flashbulbs.

And then the vice principal stood up and went to the lectern. He had a particularly small plaque in his hands, which was visible only when held up by its corners. "This next award," he intoned, "may not mean much, but it does mean something." And then he shifted his eyes behind his lenses, as if searching for something more to say. But there was no more. He announced my name as the recipient of the award for Perfect Attendance.

WELL, my parents clapped, anyway. There were no stadium cheers, and no rounding the bases la Ripken. Undaunted, I marched right up on stage and fished the little plaque out of the vice principal's hand. And then it was over.

Today, I think of that plaque on my office wall as the only credential that really means something to me. The brass plate is slowly slipping from its oak panel. But I have no intention of adjusting it. Its ever-changing nature gives my award a sort of living, functional quality. And it's a funny thing. I can't tell you what my diplomas and degrees are supposed to mean. Because if I had never earned them, I still could have learned everything I know from books and talented individuals. But I could have never earned the Perfect Attendance award if I hadn't put in those four years.

So it does mean something, after all. It means my parents knew exactly where I was every day of my high school career. I only wish the vice principal had said it first.

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