My daughter graduated from high school a few weeks ago. She’s my oldest, and it’s the first time we’ve been through all the pomp and circumstance.
The day before graduation, the school held its honors convocation. While some students made the trek across the stage time and time again to receive awards and accolades, my daughter only went up once and even that was something of a shock. She didn’t get to wear any special cords; there was no gold stole.
At the end of her four year stint in high school, she wasn’t in the top ten of her class. She wasn’t anywhere close. Indeed, out of her 154 classmates, she narrowly avoided being in the bottom ten. I like to think that has less to do with her 2.6 GPA and more to do with being enrolled in a school full of overachievers. My daughter, bless her, is no overachiever.
But why should I feel anything but pride? Yes, my daughter is average, but you know what average is for many people? Average is rolling up your sleeves and getting the job done. There is no shame in that.
The Curse of Being Average
Average. The word seems to strike fear into the hearts of parents everywhere. I know that before my kids were born I was certainly guilty of secretly pleading to God: please don’t let them be average. Yes, ten fingers and toes would nice, but if we could get an IQ above 120, that would be great too. (I also prayed for quiet children and am currently batting 0-2 on parental wishes.)
Maybe other parents feel differently, but I don’t think I’m alone in this. We all want our offspring to be exceptional. That’s why we give our kids unusual names or unorthodox spellings, right? We want them to stand out, not blend in with the crowd.
It’s also why we feel the need to put qualifiers on our children whenever we talk about them. Paul has bad grades so we are quick to note he is so very compassionate and kind. Johnny doesn’t listen but that’s because he’s unbelievably imaginative. Even apparently negative traits can be spun into something fantastic. Suzie is brilliant, so brilliant in fact that school bores her so she acts out and gets suspended.
This need to build up our kids is natural. I had to resist the urge to tell you above that my daughter, while average academically, is a voracious reader, a fantastic artist and an all-around swell kid. We want to make up for what we perceive to be their weaknesses by subbing in some other accomplishment. Or, sometimes, we try to pass off traditional accomplishments as no big deal and insist our kids’ strengths are superior.
This is a practice we need to stop for two reasons:
- It implies our children are only valuable because of their accomplishments. It says, “I can only be proud because of what you’ve done – who you are is not enough.” As a Christian, I’d tell you that everyone is a child of God and has incredible intrinsic value by that simple fact. Regardless of whether their class rank is #1 or #154, our children are divinely touched and need no other qualifiers or apologies from us to justify their greatness.
2. It detracts from those kids who truly are the cream of the crop. It’s a strange paradox that we want our kids to be exceptional and then we roll our eyes at the other kids who are exceptional. We make side comments about how Frankie always seems to have his nose in a book, but our Timmy is a free spirit who cannot be contained. We pass around articles about how valedictorians rarely become rich and famous and knowingly nod that our non-valedictorian child is better. I say: let’s celebrate those kids who walk away from honors convocation with five awards, three scholarships and gold cords. Let’s acknowledge and admire academic greatness when we see it. Doing so doesn’t take anything away from the value of our kids.
The Amazing that Comes from the Average
It occurs to me that my daughter isn’t the only average person in our family. Her grandparents are average. Her dad was average. As much as it bruises my ego to say it, her mom is probably pretty average too. But that’s ok because a lot of the good that goes on in this world is done by average people.
My dad liked to remind me that he was dangerously close to flunking out of high school. The only reason he was handed a diploma was because he promised to enlist after graduation. After a short stint in the Marine Corps, followed by a short stint in the seminary, he went to college and became a teacher.
For 30 years, he worked in a public school with large classes and a small budget. Figuring an average of 30 students per year, he saw 900 boys and girls pass through his classroom doors over the course of his career. 900 students that he hopefully influenced in some positive way.
My dad never won a Teacher of the Year award; there were no special accolades for him. However, that doesn’t mean he wasn’t doing great things. When I acquired a paper route in middle school, it was something of a revelation to see how many people wanted to know if I was related to Mr. Bergh. My yes was often met with stories about how much they liked him, how he was one of the best teachers they had in school, how they hoped their kids would be in his class.
There’s the heart of the matter. Being average doesn’t mean you can’t also do extraordinary things in the world. And extraordinary things don’t have to equate with winning awards or being publicly recognized. It means making the most of your talents and doing the best you can day in and day out.
So here’s to the valedictorians and salutatorians and overachievers – we are proud; we are jealous; we wish you all the success you deserve. And to all the average kids in the crowd – we are proud; we are impressed; and we know you are going to do great things too because you show up every day and get the work done.