As I was sitting through an interminable end-of-year awards ceremony at our middle school the other day, I was struck by the stark contrast to the last awards ceremony I had attended on another continent in December of 2012.
Not that it varied much in its basic nature. As with all awards ceremonies, there was a succession of teachers extolling the virtues of learning and the virtues of this particular group of students over any other past or present, there was a table with plaques and medals and certificates, and there was an endless parade of students down from the stands to receive their awards.
What was very different this time lay in the amount of pomp and solemnity, or rather lack thereof. I suppose it’s hard to extract much pomp and solemnity from a vast gym where you’re sitting on hemorrhoid-breeding bleachers and surrounded by banners of athletic awards hung from the rafters, bright neon lights above and squeaky sounds of rubber sole on gym floor drifting up from below. It was much easier to achieve in a posh auditorium with cushy seats and stage lighting.
But something tells me the South Africans would have managed to give it more style even here, with well-rehearsed speeches delivered in their beautiful South African lilt, wearing their black robes, and infusing it with their sense of humor and showmanship, which in our Dainfern College days invariably made it into one memorable stage performance or another. I could point to the time that Mr. Webb lit a fire on stage to make a point about kindling the flame, or the occasion of Mr. West’s departure where he had the entire staff perform an impromptu performance of Gangnam Style, black robes and all.
The other stark difference was the complete absence of any awards for my child. Where at the end of last school year our family had scored several top student and subject awards, we came home completely empty this time. Nothing, zip, not even perfect attendance or dedicated library helper. Which was actually quite the feat, considering there were about eighteen different award categories, with well over twenty kids lining the floor at any given time.
The most exclusive club, that day, seemed to be the one of children not receiving any awards.
The students with A averages actually outnumbered the others by quite a substantial margin. Grade inflation at its best. Everybody gets an A, so everybody is above average, yippee! The names were rattled off in alphabetical order and any recognition these students might have deserved ceased to be meaningful about five minutes in when we were still laboring through the Gs and people started pulling out their iPhones to check their emails.
There were awards for simply everything. Academics, arts, music, best short story, forensics (an unfortunate naming of what we previously knew as debate and public speaking, leading my children to give up any ambitions they might have had in that regard, at least for the moment), model United Nations, math, science, battle of the books, geography bee, spelling bee, good citizenship, and more. I was baffled that there seemed to be all these ways my child could have gotten involved, but didn’t. Choosing instead to fly under the radar and try to blend in as best they could. In fact, had they given out any awards for the most inconspicuous student, I’m sure my child would have scored.
This led me to reflect on another side of expat life I haven’t talked about yet: The fact that you start over and over and over again. As Hannah Montana so aptly put it, it’s a climb. Or maybe it’s more like Groundhog Day. You start at the bottom every single time. Making friends. Getting the school to know you, to understand that you’re not totally stupid. This is now the sixth school for our oldest, and every single one of them was quick to point out that “our school has particularly high standards” whenever the discussion turned to gifted programs and accelerated math classes, for instance. Like I said, the category our kids seem most eager to compete in is the one of blending in without attracting undue attention, so by the time the powers that be get an inkling that there might be potential worth tapping into, we’ve probably moved on again.
I would have expected the opposite. I would have thought that being the new kid in school so often, and not only surviving it but doing quite well, both academically and in terms of friends, would have given you enormous confidence. That it would have shown you that being different is okay. That being the same in one place makes you different in another, even though you’re still the same person, so why bother trying to adapt so much every time. That it might have made you want to stand out and make your mark faster, because you never know when we’re moving again.
It’s almost as if our frequent moves have made the desire to blend in even stronger. Or maybe it’s just your typical dose of peer pressure and teenage angst, which of course these days we have plenty of in our family. Or perhaps it’s just genetics. Some people like the limelight, and some don’t.
I admit I was a limelight avoider too. I recall countless instances of deliberately marking answers wrong on my French vocab tests, when in truth I could memorize a list of twenty new words in about two minutes. And giving some words an awkward German accent. Just so as to avoid the gushing praise from my teacher, and, consequently, the derisive wrath from my classmates (most of whom, it must be said, had not one Francophone bone in their body).
So maybe I should be more lenient on my kid who wants to quit band “because it’s just not cool here.“ It’s enough, he says, to have been christened “Africa” immediately upon arrival, and every other sentence starting with “Hey Africa, I bet you didn’t have that in Africa.”
On that particular note, I found a piece of comedy that totally fits the very thing he’s going through right now. By none other than South Africa’s very own Trevor Noah. If you haven’t seen him, it’s about time you did.