Want to know a little secret? At one point, I received a participation trophy.
Actually, it wasn’t just one trophy. I used to have multiple participation trophies.
I know, right? I’m from the tail end of Generation X. I’m not a Millennial. They’re the ones who were constantly given reinforcement, handed trophies for just showing up, reminded of their purchasing power, developed a sense of entitlement, and then ruined everything. At least that’s what Boomers have been pissing and moaning about. But like I said, that’s not my generation. I’m supposed to be one of those feral latch key kids who had to be scrappy in order to get what I wanted. So either I wasn’t raised right, I’m actually a Millennial, or someone at the Baymen Soccer Club in 1983 was way ahead of their time.
Or … and this is just crazy thinking … maybe the “Everyone Gets a Trophy” approach existed a long time before the generation that gets a lot of flack for it.
I’m going to go with that last one because in the four years I played youth soccer, I don’t think that my teams ever won a single game. Okay, maybe we did that first year because we were all in kindergarten and that wasn’t so much playing soccer every weekend as it was a mass of kids running up and down a field while their parents watched and hoped (often in vain) that they would get tired out. But the other years of soccer involved actual games with referees, scores, standings, and even travel team tryouts, and we would gather en masse at the junior high fields each weekend and try to apply what we supposedly learned on a muddy practice field a few days earlier.
At least that was the idea. I was mediocre at best and spent most of my time standing around while playing the fullback position or standing on the sidelines. When I did see action, I was pretty useless or someone else on the team swooped in and grabbed the ball before I could get to it. So the trophy was for … being able to pay attention or stay upright for both halves of a game every Sunday?
While I don’t know what garnered the four years’ worth of trophies, I do know that when I was a kid, I thought those trophies were important enough to display on a shelf in my bedroom, which is where they stayed until I got a CD boom box for my 15th birthday. Then, they went into a box and into the attic alongside my two baseball trophies (which were earned because our team played in the championship game) and they stayed there until a couple of years ago when my parents found them during a cleanout and brought they to my house. I took some pictures of them and then threw them away just like I did with my other trophies, academic awards, and good citizenship awards from my formative years.
Yeah, that was another award from back in the day–praise for not being a complete terror in the classroom. In elementary school, it was a “Citizen of the Month” award and I guess it was designed to promote behavior and service among kids, which I understand considering how when you grow up in a suburban bubble, you can develop a real selfish streak if you’re not careful. When it came to me, though, I just wanted the recognition and wound up being weirdly competitive about it. I declared–to myself and nobody else, mind you–that I was going to get a Citizen of the Month award in the sixth grade.
I had no idea how to do this, by the way. It’s not like there was criteria. Your teacher, I think, just picked someone, and that was based on whatever arbitrary thought flashed through their mind. So it was a matter of … not being an asshole for 30 days? You laugh, but that can be hard for some eleven- and twelve-year-old kids, since sixth grade marks the beginning of one of the most dickish phases of a person’s life. For me, it was still elementary school, so I was spared the pleasure of middle school, but even then, the sixth grade at Lincoln Avenue Elementary was filled with enough immaturity and bitchiness for it to become a living hell for some people.
According to the certificate, I earned the Citizen of the Month award on April 28, 1989. That meant I went through most of the school year striking out on my quest. But then the day arrived, the announcement was made, and I had my picture taken along with the other sixth grade winners. It may have even appeared in a school bulletin. I framed the certificate and it sat on my wall until it was eventually replaced with a similar award in junior high. That wasn’t one I openly campaigned for for and neither was the citizenship award I received on senior awards night in high school; granted, I didn’t know they existed, so maybe I was genuinely a good person?
At some point, the awards certificates came off the wall, were dropped into a file folder, that folder was put in a box, and the box moved with me from place to place. I scanned the certificates before shredding them, figuring that a few megabytes of hard drive storage was significantly less space when it comes to posterity, just like photographs I took of those old soccer trophies.
Scour through social media and you will find various takes on participation awards, from “real men” decrying the lack of mettle that “kids these days” have to education “thought leaders” acting as if an attendance award is the greatest social injustice of our time. I’m ambivalent about it, to be honest. It was great to be recognized back then and I am sure that had I not been, I would have been a little jealous, but more than three decades on I can tell you they are all just ephemeral.