Starving the Future 

STAR Tannery, Virginia - Shortly before my son's high school graduation, our family's attendance was required as yet another end-of-the-school-year awards "banquet."

I put the word "banquet" in quotes merely because a banquet conjures visions of feasting and reveling, perhaps a boisterous song or two and maybe even serving wenches. It does not speak of green bean boiled gray in ham stock.

Anyway, humor me. The last - dinner - was the largest of the year. It lasted 2-1/2 hours and the lengthy tributes exceeded some Nobel Prize-winner speeches.

In terms of expense and attention, all other awards given at all other dinners paled in comparison.
In a perfect world - in other words, one where I am Empress of the Universe - a ceremony such as this would exist to award those who excelled at accomplishing the goals of the host institution. In other words, an establishment that exists to educate would, naturally, save its greatest accolades for those who best become educated.

Alas, no. The year-end awards banquets -- academic and athletic -- are ceremonies arranged for and paid by groups of parents. So the larger your group and the more support you can muster for the group, the bigger and better the tribute.

One would think academics would be the largest however, this particular lavish display was furnished by the school's athletic boosters.

There were a few of us who qualified for attendance at both dinners. It is a strange circumstance that, in spite of my side of the family's anti-social attitude, I happen to give birth to A Joiner. Heir 2 is up for anything and when someone came to him and said, "Hey, we really have a good time on the cross country team," he was ready to sign up.

Turns out he was pretty good at it - enough to letter in it. But, as is our familial attitude, he's not particularly competitive in the area of athletics. His desire to win did not extend to changing his diet or his wonky sleeping habits. So our annual invitation to attend the athletic banquet was always a bit of a surprise. We rarely attended, though, since Heir 2 didn't know many of the other people there.

But this year was different. It was his last chance to attend the athletic dinner and we were all feeling a bit sentimental.

I've always been critical about school systems that focus on athletics at the expense of academics and, to be honest, our local school system is not as bad as the nightmare of a school system described in H.G. Bissinger's Friday Night Lights, where all school money and community focus goes to support high school football while the educational facilities and faculty fall into disrepair.

However, those of us who have come from other areas ("outsiders" or foreigners, as we're called when we dare to express an opinion), are well aware of the school systems' short-sighted ambitions for the students they graduate.

I couldn't help wondering, as each athletic dinner award recipient returned to their seat with a trophy the size of the Stanley Cup, what sort of message was being sent by the booster parents, the school administrators and faculty in attendance and the system providing the facilities. "This is it. This is as good as it's ever going to get. So here's this big honkin' trophy to remind you of your glory days that, upon graduation, are over."

To be sure, when a few days later we read the program that accompanied the graduation ceremony, only around five students, out of a graduating class of over 140, were attending college outside the surrounding area.

The argument most often used by the booster parents for encouraging athletics (certainly in a school system that has an adequate phys ed requirement, not to mention a plethora of opportunities for area youth to engage in team sports), is the abundance of scholarship money. But there were no athletic scholarship recipients in Heir 2's graduating class, other than the paltry amount doled out as local money. On a budget exceeding the $300,000 mark, the athletic boosters handed out an amount equal to the academic boosters, who operate on a substantially smaller budget and certainly less than was spent on the toddler-sized trophies.

"Well," a friend of mine said, "the world needs laborers too."

At first I recoiled at the smug, elitist connotation of what he'd said. But the world does need laborers and I'd be proud to have either of my sons become one if that is the work he chooses to do.

For many students in the community, though, that choice is hijacked by a community focused on its own entertainment instead of providing for their children a vision and a future.

Copyright (c) 2007, SteelWill, Inc. All Rights Reserved. Spot On is a trademark of SteelWill, Inc.

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