No, they aren't amazing because they finished fifth grade

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“These kids are so amazing. I’m so proud of them.”

I’m sorry, what? Is a fifth grade graduation really all that amazing? Are we really high-fiving and showering our kids with gifts because they finished eighth grade? There was a time when graduations were only for twelfth graders. I think I liked that better, truth be told.

Now certainly there are circumstances where these milestones and achievements can be and are remarkable. War-torn countries. Violence-ridden communities. Children who have overcome the odds of illness and trauma. Students with disabilities who were told they’d never read, never write, never make it in the world. Children who endured relentless bullying, racism, and even shootings in a place that is supposed to feel safe. For them, a never-ending standing ovation is in order. And so is our admiration and respect.

But for most of us in suburban America, we are caught up in a culture that over-praises the most basic achievements, as if finishing elementary school was even up for negotiation or “graduating” from eighth grade symbolizes some sort of triumph. Sure it’s a right of passage and can make a parent weepy, but the “these kids are so amazing” mantra that floods social media this time of year (followed by fifty comments of “congratulations”) isn’t helping anybody, especially not the kids upon whom the praise is being heaped. Pride is one thing, but telling them that they’re “amazing” because they finished fifth or eighth grade seems to leave little room for them to see how much more we expect them to do.

“To whom much is given, much is required.”

Did I tell my thirteen year old that he’s amazing because he’s finishing seventh grade today? Hell no. I told him that despite his many buddies who are skipping the last day of school with parent permission, he is going to fulfill his obligations as a student and be there until the end. I told him I’m proud of the way he worked to improve some of his grades this final trimester. I told him I love him, as I do every morning. But I also told him that there is nothing amazing about him making it to eighth grade and that it would actually be pretty amazing if he hadn’t. Everything is in place for him to succeed. And he needs to understand that, for many boys his age here in our little state of Rhode Island and across this vast country, that is simply not the case.

He doesn’t experience hunger. Or witness violence. Or know how it feels to be called names or held to lower expectations in school because of the color of his skin or the accent of his parents. He has three college-educated grandparents. Two parents with graduate degrees. If he falls, there are strong safety nets in place to catch him. If he experiences illness or injury, he has the health insurance and access to doctors (that his parents know personally) to ensure he gets the right care. If his school issued Chromebook-breaks over vacation, we have another one he can use.

He and his two younger brothers are set up for success. They started this life on third base. And so did their parents.

So I will not overly praise them—especially not on public forums—when they meet basic minimal expectations. But I will look hard for those moments when they go above and beyond, whether in gratitude, empathy, generosity, or hard work. The moments when they think of others before themselves. The moments when it clicks and they internalize the reality that they started this life with a head start and have an obligation to find their own way to pay it forward.

Finishing fifth grade? Or eighth grade? Nothing amazing about that.

The author first published a version of this article on her blog, Good School Hunting.

 
 
Erika Sanzi
Erika Sanzi is a Senior Visiting Fellow at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute