July 25, 2014 | 10:38 am

A Trophy for Everyone?

I was talking to a teenager here in the city and he was telling me about some of his older friends who had already graduated from high school.

“They all turned out okay. Except one.”

“What happened to that one?” I asked.

“He didn’t get into the college he wanted to go to. He had to go somewhere else.”


“That’s it. He had to go to the other school.”

New York City is a thrilling and competitive and exciting place to grow up. With access to world-class museums, libraries, and cultural experiences, students in the city lack for no educational stimuli. There is competition for each classroom placement from preschool to college and it is based upon many factors, both within and without a parent’s control. By the time a student is in high school, the pressure is a familiar friend.

As an outsider and educator trying to get accustomed to the educational systems of New York I see an interconnecting web of opportunity, resources, and excellence. But as a minister, talking to a kid on the street about success, I also see some things that we can do as a church community to support our young people through this process, a rigorous gauntlet that hopefully drops them off at the doorstep of their preferred university or trade school or web start-up.

We must convey to our young people that success in life is not defined by or confined to access to your chosen educational institution. There is life after college. There is life outside of college. There is life at a college that wasn’t your first choice. There is life in staying home with your parents for a year to save money. There is life finding an unconventional, non-accredited education through connections and apprenticeships. How can we convey our unconditional support and pride for our young people in our church community? Here are two ideas:

  1. Are you tempted to ask the big three questions? (What college are you going to? What is your major? What do you plan to do with that degree?) Try some alternative questions. What are you passionate about right now? What kind of person would you like to be become? Where are you interested in living someday? What kinds of connections are you looking for?
  2. Celebrate the achievements, no matter how mundane. There is popular wisdom out there with regard to the self-centered millennial generation. This wisdom says that when we give all the kids a trophy and tell them all that they are special, they grow up lazy and entitled. I would like to suggest the very opposite. When I graduated from high school and college, I thought the fanfare was absurd. I did not even invite my parents to my college graduation. Graduation was just a formality for me. But looking back, I realize that no matter how assumed it was that I would graduate (or pass AP tests, or play in the orchestra, etc. etc.), it is in celebrating these mechanical successes that I could learn a major life lesson: Life and success are found in the mundane.

When we only celebrate our students when they accomplish something unexpected or unique or special, we teach our students that very misguided value that they must perform well to make life worth living; we teach our students to be dissatisfied with the mediocrity of daily life. And the truth is, most of life is a series of mundane, expected tasks.

If my son or daughter were talking to someone on the street about the successes of their friends someday, I would hope the conversation would go something like this:

“They all turned out okay. Except one.”

“What happened to that one?” I asked.

“He is miserable because none of his ideas are succeeding yet. He just can’t find a way to be happy in the struggle.”

“And the rest?”

“They are working hard, finding satisfaction in relationships and community, and pursuing their goals one step at a time.”

I know. 18-year-olds don’t usually talk that way. But if we can train them to see success in the everyday breaths of life, they may learn, years before we did, that success is not found in an acceptance letter.