Winning With Purpose

Yesterday was the end-of-the-year assembly at my children’s school. It’s always a special day—a day that I mark on my calendar months in advance and construct an iron-clad fort around.  Nobody gets my time on this day other than my children.

Can you go to Arkansas on Thursday?


Can we have a conference call Thursday morning?

No way.

Can I have coffee with you?

Ha.  No.

This year’s assembly was business as usual.

A group of bright-eyed and beautiful children ages 4 to 14 sitting cross-legged on the floor, anxiously waiting to hear their name called.

Their prize, of course, is running to the front of the room, grabbing their 8.5- x 11-inch  pre-printed award and holding it across their chest with great pride while the paparazzi of parents snap photos.

For the younger kids (preschool through second grade), the school plays by the everyone’s -a- winner rule. Each class is called up as a large group and the awards are passed out one by one.

While I prefer a little competition when it comes to awards, I try to contain myself. “Try” being the operative word.

Last year Alex received the “rule follower” award, which melted my heart. My 89-year-old grandfather always says, “Katherine, there’s only two types of people in this world: rule followers and rule breakers.” Being a staunch rule follower himself, I knew my grandfather was pleased to see my son falling on that side of the divide. Especially since I’m 622 miles on the other side of that divide. Regularly.

This year, Alex received the “amazing athlete” award.

My reaction: “Interesting.”

My husband’s reaction: “Now that’s an award! Way to go son!”

Clearly, opposites attract.

I was hoping for something a little more academic in nature. After watching them hand out awards for the kids who received straight As, I leaned over to Richard and said, “Oh, I wooooooonder which one of our kids will get that award one day: Layla or Alex?”

His response: “Good Lord, Katherine.”

Again, opposites.

Layla’s class was up next. The precocious group of first graders waited anxiously to hear their names called. Last, but not least, Layla was awarded the “fantastic friend” award.


Last year she received the “extraordinary effort” award, which I loved (I mean, really loved), but being a good friend seems like a positive thing to be in this world.  I think.

Between the two kids, nothing overly academic, but a solid showing.

Once they finished with the younger kids, the game changed for the older kids (grades three through eight). In this age group, not everyone gets an award—only the people who go the extra mile and perform at the highest academic standards.

Now the awards are going to get really good, I thought. No more awards for being nice or funny, a decent storyteller or knowing how to count particularly well.

As they go grade by grade,  beckoning only the top students to come forward, a couple things are going through my mind. (Remember:  I have gerbils in my mind)

  • I wonder which subjects Layla and Alex will master by the third grade so they can start winning real awards?
  • I wonder what I can start doing immediately to help them prepare?
  • I wonder how many awards one child is allowed to win?
I’m very competitive—in case you hadn’t noticed.

Meanwhile, I’m sure Richard was either thinking about our dinner plans, his Twitter feed,  or how lame these other awards were compared to being an amazing athlete.

And, in the middle of my gerbil-induced day dream, I started thinking about McKenzi, an eigth-grade student with special needs.


When awards get competitive, it means amazing kids like McKenzi don’t win. They can’t win. McKenzi won’t win the gold star for math facts, she won’t be the social studies star and she won’t grab the coveted creative writing award.

My heart sank and I started to feel really uncomfortable. Damn these awards. Everyone should get one. Absolutely everyone. While the awards-for-everyone philosophy goes against everything I believe in, I also really believe in McKenzi. Deeply.

And I may believe in McKenzi’s godmother even more. She’s at every single school event, standing right beside McKenzi. Holding her hand, keeping her calm, whispering in her ear.  During every awards assembly, every school musical, every field trip and every field day. You name it, she’s there.

Hell, I thought. McKenzi’s godmother should be getting an award today, too. An award for. . .

  • Never showing up late
  • Never losing her temper
  • Never saying McKenzi can’t do it
  • Never leaving McKenzi’s side
  • Never giving up
McKenzi and her godmother deserved an award and they weren’t going to get one.

It made me sad, and I vowed to cool my jets on being so competitive when it comes to kids winning awards at school. I even contemplated telling the head of the school to find a way to give McKenzi an award next year. She deserved one for God’s sake.

The academic awards were wrapping up and I started packing up my stuff. But, like most good awards shows, they had saved the best for last.

One of the teachers stood up to give the final award: the community service award.

The teacher told the story of one girl who went above and beyond the 20-hour requirement and completed 86 hours of community service. There was an audible gasp in the room.

In all honesty, it humbled even the most competitive type A parents in the room.

Right. Giving back to others. Now that’s award-worthy.

Fair point. Well made.

And then, they told the story of an even more accomplished child, one who had completed 267 hours of community service.

And her name was McKenzi.

Holy Mary Mother of You-Know-What.

What a remarkable life lesson to watch unfold in front of my tear-filled eyes.

Here’s what I learned from McKenzi yesterday that I will remember for the rest of my life:

  1. Don’t chase awards you can’t win. That’s just crazy.
  2. Figure out the one thing you do really well and do it better than anyone else.
  3. Don’t do it for the recognition, but if you happen to get some, clap for yourself as you walk up to receive your award.

I was so proud of McKenzi as she walked across the stage. And of her godmother, who had probably been right next to McKenzi during every one of those 267 hours. So, technically speaking, as a team they probably actually completed 534 community service hours.

But here’s my favorite part. . .

The school didn’t need to change their award policy and give every single student an award, because that would be lame. And they didn’t have to create a special award just for McKenzi, because that’s not what McKenzi wants or needs.

McKenzi won her own damn award.

Like true winners do.

And there’s no question in my mind that McKenzi won the very best award of all that day.

(If one wanted to be competitive about it.)


Join the discussion and tell us your opinion.

Cheryl Lagereply

What a wonderful, wonderful awards ceremony…and such a phenomenal school to acknowledge the gifts of each student so unqiuely. (Of course I am weeping openly right now…can only imagine the celebration in McKenzi’s household following that ceremony!)

Kudos to your kids (and YOU and your man) for raising kids who received such important awards….qualities that will serve them well for a lifetime.

Sweateth not the academic awards too much….I always remember with great fondness our kids’ principal’s words before doling out “Citizenship” awards (which not every one received…I am with you!). His words, “THIS is a very important award. There will be many who get straight A’s, are successful athletes, etc. If those folks are not kind to their neighbors, polite, good helpers, good teammates….they will NOT succeed. The recipients of Citizenship Awards will always succeed. 🙂

Sharing this article—-love it….thank you!

Katherine Wintschreply
– In reply to: Cheryl Lage

I love that thought behind the Citizenship Award! Wow. So very true. Thanks for sharing.

Amy Broockereply

Katherine! What an amazing story about McKenzi! It brought me to tears! You captured the moment beautifully. You are an amazing writer. Thanks so much for sharing your gift of writing with all of us!

Katherine Wintschreply
– In reply to: Amy Broocke

Thanks Amy. What a wonderful thing to say. Thanks for taking the time to comment. Hope to see you soon.

Michael Woodruffreply

I just read the blog, and though I was there, I felt really rejuvenated. It is very difficult to make decisions about awards and how to balance the recognition of the feelings of the students with the fact that not everyone can realistically always win an award. I saw McKenzie and her Godmother today- They are still very busy this summer. Loved the article!

Katherine Wintschreply
– In reply to: Michael Woodruff

Thanks so much for your kind note. I know it must be hard determining the “right” thing to do…and you just can’t please everyone! I think you’re doing an amazing job and appreciate all the love and support you show the students.

Carianne Musereply

Great post! Special needs kids teach us something every time we are around them! One thing, though, I’m sure that McKenzi’s Godmother is a saint and a fabulous support person for her, but I doubt she NEVER loses her temper and she is probably late to work or church or something, especially if she is not ever late to stuff at school. Special needs parents are regular people too. 🙂

Katherine Wintschreply
– In reply to: Carianne Muse

Wonderful point Carianne! We all have our moments and our ups and downs regardless of the circumstances around us. A great reminder. Thanks for sharing.


It’s a relief to find sonmeoe who can explain things so well

Katherine Wintschreply
– In reply to: Foster

Thanks for the kind words!!

– In reply to: Katherine Wintsch

You’ve captured this peylfcter. Thanks for taking the time!

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