I saw the green ribbon, all imitation silk and faux gold-leaf lettering, buried on a cluttered table. It had the telltale crinkles and creases of surviving amid the worksheets, Pokémon cards and snack wrappers in my son's backpack. It bore, in capital letters, a single word that would wound any serious athlete: "PARTICIPANT."
The potato sacks were too small for his extra-tall frame, he said. The tire he had to roll around an orange traffic cone went wobbly and out of control.
"So you didn't win any events, huh?" I said, bracing myself for tears but hoping for a flash of determination followed by a vow to chase chickens and chug raw eggs Rocky-style to get ready for next year's three-legged races and water-balloon tosses.
"No, our class beat three others in the tug of war," he said. "We were really gooooood."
However, there would be neither blue ribbons nor empty hands. Every second-grader would leave the playing field an equal -- a green-ribboned member of the indistinct middle. In a few days, my son’s ribbon had disappeared without a trace and without any saddness on his part.
I'm not a subscriber to the Vince Lombardi-isms about winning being the only thing. But I do sometimes wonder if we do right by handing prizes to our children for simply showing up rather than actually excelling. How can they learn the value hard work and practice bring to success when results are irrelevant to reward? Has modern society's focus on preventing our children from ever feeling inadequate bred out the competitive gene by instilling a sense of entitlement for just being?
"It's psychotic!" I kept hearing the superhero father say during The Incredibles movie. "They keep creating new ways to celebrate mediocrity ..."
I prepared many weeks in advance for my first field day when I was a fifth-grader (yes, son, back when dinosaurs and imitation wood-paneled station wagons still roamed the Earth). My event -- the softball throw. I spent hours heaving the one cement-hard gray softball we owned back and forth across our yard. Victory, I knew in my bones, could be mine with practice, attitude and stalling for a good gust of wind at my back.
When field day came, I was ready. Unfortunately, so was Millard. Millard was an impossibly tall classmate whose preference for unbuttoned cardigan sweaters optically enhanced his vertical superiority over not only the entire student population but also most of our teachers. Legend was he had stayed back a year. Or three. Reality was that on that spring day, he threw a softball clear across the entire asphalt back lot, the orb nearly clipping the metal backboard at the far end before hitting dirt on the edge of the woods.
My throw that day proved only good enough for third place. However, I came home with a yellow ribbon, proud I had showed given the missile launch I had witnessed. The ribbon hung on the corner of my bedroom mirror, holding a place of honor for more than a dozen years before I packed up my childhood for adult pastures.
A few days later, while searching some boxes in our basement, I came across that yellow ribbon, all imitation silk and faux gold-leaf lettering. "THIRD" screamed its front. On a cardboard tag on the back someone had written my name and my not-quite-winning event (and I quote), the "softball through."
This reminded me about the upcoming second-grade spelling bee my son had been prepping for lately. I found his vocabulary lists and the note the school had stapled atop them about the bee.
It concludes: "We will be handing out prizes for 1st, 2nd and 3rd place winners!"
Maybe the competitive gene hasn't been bred out. Maybe we're just making it more selective.
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Postscript: To the best of my knowledge, Millard, the softball-throwing machine of my youth, is dead. He was stabbed or shot while he robbed someone or was being robbing himself. He was in his 20s. I cut the article out of my hometown newspaper many years ago and tucked it away because I knew one day I would need to write about him. It was while searching for this clipping (which I still haven’t found) that I happened upon the ribbon I won that day. Winning isn’t everything or the only thing. Sometimes it’s just a flash that leaves a ghostly imprint you see when you close your eyes.
And who finished second in the fifth grade softball toss of 1979? Hey, Ms. Picket: I could be wrong, but you might want to check with The Kid.
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