Alfie Kohn shows in Punished by Rewards that many of us are permanently scarred by a culture of awards and rewards. Despite early successes that put me in danger of just such arrogance, fragility and stunted creativity that results from a culture of awards, in the end I was mostly spared due to a fortuitous combination of personal laziness and unjust teachers.
I spent most of nursery school crying. In kindergarten the teacher laughed at me because I spelled my name backwards, put my shoes on the wrong feet and could not learn how to tie my shoe laces. As most teachers of her generation, she apparently had received no training in recognizing dyslexia, which spared me any punishment by reward that year.
That particular danger first reared its head when I was named Eleventh Most Likely to Succeed in first grade. Given that it was a class of 23, this put me in the top half, a fact that I trumpeted to my brother, who had been Sixteenth Most Likely to Succeed in his class of 26. Furthermore, given that nine of the students above me were girls, this meant that among the boys I was the second most likely to succeed. Everyone already knew that Chip Patzer was the smartest boy and the most likely boy to succeed, so that slot was taken anyway. Chip could tie his shoes by himself and he read 126 books that year, getting 126 stars on the back wall. I could not and did not, so it was only fair that I was not The Boy Most Likely to Succeed. But second boy and top half overall made me feel like a tremendous success and such successes can go to your head.
This was 1969, before Title IX, before Gloria Steinem founded Ms. magazine. It was before the quiet revolution of the 1970s and so the vast majority of young women did not expect to work for pay at age 35. All this to say that looking at it objectively from my perspective now, my Top Half showing was only possible due to male privilege. Had Jenny Stupac and Priscilla Germain gone to first grade after Title IX, they would have been seen as likely engineers and taken slots 11 and 12, bumping me to 13 and down into the lower half of the class.
At six years old, my underdeveloped social conscience did not yet see that the girls were given talking dolls for Christmas while I was being given guns and a coonskin cap and encouraged to set out on a life of adventure like Daniel Boone, or at least Fess Parker. All I knew for certain was that I had been named Eleventh Most Likely to Succeed and that made me more likely to succeed than the twelve losers behind me in my first-grade class.
Second grade, like kindergarten, brought a year without awards. I learned humility that year at the hands of Miss Drew and my classmates, in the first case quite unjustly and, in the second case, quite justly.
Miss Drew looked like she was 100 years old, like maybe when she was younger, she had taught my grandmother. She nevertheless went on to teach for another 17 years. I never thrived under strict rules and I found Miss Drew very strict. My sister, on the other hand, remembers her fondly and said Miss Drew loved children and was exceedingly kind. I’m going to guess my sister was right in this case.
I have only three memories of second grade: learning division, decorating cookies and one particular relay race. I was neither good nor bad at division, a slightly disappointing performance for someone who was, after all, Eleventh Most Likely to Succeed. It was, however, unclear whether or not I still held that illustrious honor as a couple of new kids had joined my class, swelling our ranks to 25.
I earned my just humiliation at the hands of my classmates during a relay race where I was teamed with four very likely to succeed girls. The race consisted of a short sprint to a marker (a square of plywood) and a short sprint back to the start where you tagged the next runner. I was selected to anchor the team.
I developed an ingenious secret strategy to destroy the competition. I had watched the Indy 500, won in 1969 by Mario Andretti. Andretti was a star in the way that Indy winners do not seem to be today, known to every child, at least every boy with a toy gun and a coonskin cap, in America. Only I among my classmates, including the ten (or perhaps now 11) people more likely to succeed than me, observed how Andretti and his fellow Indy drivers would drive along the outside of the straightaway, swoop to the inside at the apex of the curve and then drift wide again to keep their speed up and use that speed to power down the straightaway.
I realized that by adopting a similar strategy, I would be able to maintain my prodigious speed as I rounded the base, avoiding the need to come to a full stop and then accelerate from zero at the turnaround point. Just like Mario Andretti, I would use that speed to slingshot past my opponents as I powered down the finish straightaway to Second Grade Class Olympics glory. It was to be my shining moment as an athlete.
Rather than running directly to the base and back, I imagined how Mario Andretti would run this course. Pounding across the grass in my red PF Flyers with the magic PF wedge, which helped kids run faster even on the moon, I forged my own playground Great Circle Route, that took me not in a straight line, but in a great circle around the turnaround marker.
Since I had made nobody privy to my ingenious winning strategy, to the naive eyes of my teammates, I was running bizarrely around the playground in some random, unknowable pattern that most certainly was not the standard racing strategy in the Second Grade Class Olympics. Neither the Twenty-Fifth Most Likely to Succeed child nor the supposedly oh-so-smart #1 Most Likely to Succeed Anne Dellavecchio had watched the Indy 500 and drawn from it the great insight that I had.
Ha ha! They would see when my prodigious speed, powered by my magic red PF Flyers and maintained by my wide, not-so-random-as-all-that loop around the playground, rocketed us to a crushing victory over our less gifted and intelligent opponents. It was the return leg that would show the brilliance of my strategy, that would make up for that lost ground by using all that speed I had not lost to slingshot past our loser opponents and cruise across the finish line to the adulation of my fans, doing righteous honor to my magic red PF Flyers.
I made at least two mistakes.
First, in the heat of competition, I forgot the part about swooping in at the apex of the curve, and instead I simply ran a huge circle around the marker, way out into the playground, coming closer to the bases of the other teams than our own. It turns out that you have to maintain a heck of a lot of speed to overcome the extra 50 percent of the distance that comes from never getting within twenty feet of a turnaround marker that is maybe sixty feet away.
Second, I somehow failed to note the significant physical differences between a state-of-the-art Indy car traveling at 200 mph and a small-for-his-age seven-year-old boy traveling at perhaps 8 mph. As it turns out, merely wearing magic red PF Flyers, regardless of how they perform on the moon, does not fully compensate for the differences between a race car and a seven-year-old. It takes surprisingly little time for a 45-pound kid to accelerate from zero to 8 mph, especially if his feet are graced with magic red PF Flyers which, as we have established, they were.
My teammates watched with growing dismay as we slipped from first to second to third to fourth to fifth, a.k.a. last, place during the course of my perambulations around the schoolyard. The other teams were already done when I finally carried my prodigious speed into the finish straightaway after my long tour of the schoolyard. My four so-likely-to-succeed teammates were aghast.
“What were you doing?” one of them asked.
The weakness in my strategy having been laid bare, I had no answer to this question other than uneasy embarrassment and flushing red cheeks. I did not speak. I did not receive high fives. I did not receive an award. I did not suffer the character-damaging effects of letting the victory go to my head.
My other chance at an award was stolen due to basic prejudice. Miss Drew brought in cookies and decorating supplies as a treat for us one day. I am sure that my cookie should have won the award for Best-Decorated Cookie but for a deep prejudice that would plague me for the rest of my school days. Namely, the judges favored decorative neatness over frosting volume.
In a just world, a seven-year-old’s cookie decoration would be judged by criteria meaningful to seven-year-olds. And there is nothing more pleasing to a seven-year-old than a colossal quantity of sugar-laden frosting. And as I had managed to pile more sugar-laden frosting onto my cookie than any other child, I remain firm in my belief that this particular award was stolen from me, Q.E.D.
So it was that I learned at seven that the system was rigged against me and in favor of the neat people of the world. This got worse in third grade when we learned cursive writing. From then until eleventh grade, penmanship dogged me as an anchor on my grades. One might think of my messy writing as the ballast in my ship of character that kept me balanced by withholding good grades from me with the majority of teachers in the lower grades who seemed to equate good penmanship and clear thinking. It wasn’t until eleventh grade that I first felt my essays had actually been read by a teacher who read for ideas, not neatness. I loved Mr Taft for it, though he hated me, and told me so directly on two occasions, for fully justified reasons, such as my allergy to homework. But I get ahead of myself.
My award drought ended the next year. In third grade, I was named Friendliest in the class. I forgot this entirely for thirty years until my mother reminded me as an adult. Though I would eventually be offered a Fullbright and a Chateaubriand fellowship, it was the only award that she ever talked about or seemed to remember at all. She would occasionally mention it right up until Alzheimer’s stole her memory, which I think speaks favorably to my mother’s hierarchy of values, but also means that in her mind, I peaked when I was eight.
Fourth grade was the pinnacle of my success, with a triumph unequaled for at least another 20 years. It was the only time I would clearly shine above that Eleventh Most Likely to Succeed award from first grade. My school was blessed with two great fourth-grade teachers and my teacher, Miss Hungerford, was one of the best elementary school teachers ever. It is no lie and no exaggeration to say that much of what I know about how the world works I learned in her class thanks to her field trips to the sewage treatment plant, the dump, the power plant and the water treatment plant.
She let us play chess and there were three of us who traded wins. We arranged a tournament where our class champion would go up against Mrs Slocum’s class champion. My victory against my classmates Ed Hessford and Chris Lavery was hard-fought. They played well and we traded wins, but when the dust settled, I emerged as class champion.
In Miss Slocum’s class, Tom Ryan reigned supreme. Nobody was even close. He destroyed opponents in minutes. It was widely believed in Mrs Slocum’s class, and quietly feared in Miss Hungerford’s class, that Tom would similarly destroy our champion, me, in minutes as well.
I destroyed him in minutes. He was not nearly the player Chris Lavery was and I had had the advantage of honing my skills by playing against Chris every day for months. Tom had no such worthy opponents in his class and it showed in his play. And so it was I emerged as Fourth Grade Chess Champion of the entire fourth grade, not just my class. This was, by a considerable margin, the most important award I would win for the rest of my school career.
In fact, it was the last award of any sort and the last competition of any sort I would win until college. Thus began the Long Drought.
Fifth grade saw me assigned to Ms. Turnowicz, the first Ms to grace our school. It was 1973, the year after Ms. magazine went into publication. She was new and strict and the students took to calling her Ms Turn-A-Witch. Even at the time, I remember that I felt vaguely sorry for her suffering at the hands of the class of misfits she had been given, among whom I was far from the worst and far from the best.
This was the year we got our first sex education class and also the year we got advanced civil defense training in what to do in event of a nuclear attack. The hitherto unnoticed linking of these two things in a single year of instruction may explain why my inability to find sexual partners for the next many years was rivaled only by my inability to start a nuclear war. Who knows? Fortunately, albeit rather later than most, I figured out the former and have not, thus far, been successful at the latter.
I had no problems that year, but was unable to follow up on my stunning achievements from fourth grade. I won no awards of any sort. I did learn that you should always keep several gallons of drinking water on hand and you should change your clothes and wash as soon as possible if you found yourself covered in radioactive fallout. Perhaps my great reward was that I did not have to act on that last bit of information.
By sixth grade, it became clear that my risk of being ruined by awards and rewards was diminishing annually. Mr Buehner was the most-admired teacher in the school and you were considered lucky if you got him for sixth grade. My sister had hated him. My brother’s antics earned the singular honor of having to sit at The Desk of Shame adjacent to the teacher’s desk. My mother never forgave Mr Buenher for making her sit at The Desk of Shame on parents’ night.
I shared the family dislike for the most respected teacher in the school. I disliked him for countless reasons, but mostly because I always disliked teachers who tried to be cool, which he did, and because I thought he was a bully, which he was. A few years after I graced, or possibly disgraced, his classroom, he was also named the Vermont Teacher of the Year. And some years after that he was arrested and sent to jail as a pedophile. He was one of two teachers in my career that I hated, who hated me and who got arrested as a pedophile. None of the teachers I liked were ever arrested except, perhaps, for protesting the war. I am proud of my ability to detect when bad teachers are actually bad people.
I am also modestly proud that I stopped Mr Buehner from bullying Doug Jerrod, simply by telling him it was wrong, which apparently is not something that 11-year-olds frequently tell their pedophile teachers. I am less proud that this small act of courage was never to be repeated in the numerous other cases where I saw bullying and did nothing other than think, “Thank God that isn’t me.”
I was clearly right, so Mr Buehner had no response other than a fuming silence, bright red cheeks that I still remember, and leaving Doug alone for a time. As I walked back to my seat, my friend and old chess nemesis Tom Ryan looked at me and said, “Lambert, if eyes could kill, you’d be a goner.” That year I was perhaps in the running for Most Disliked by the Teacher, but alas there was no official award in that category.
And so it was that I fell from Eleventh Most Likely to Succeed and School-Wide Fourth Grade Chess Champion to the Most Disliked Student in Mr Buehner’s class, a status previously and more proudly achieved by my brother. And knowing now what everyone suspected then, it was far better to be hated by Mr Buenher than loved by him.
So in the end, I was saved by a pedophile from the life of arrogance and entitlement you might expect of someone who followed his success in being named Eleventh Most likely to Succeed in first grade with a glorious triumph as Fourth Grade Chess Champion.
The closest I would come to an award after that was in twelfth grade when Carla Gochman, one of the smart kids with Ivy League aspirations, told me that she thought I was perhaps the Most Underrated in my high school. Surprising as this may seem, she said this without malice or irony and seemed to intend it as a compliment. It was not until that moment that I realized that my many hidden talents were quite so, uh, hidden. Fortunately for me, however, those talents remained hidden through to the last day of a high-school career without awards and I did not, therefore, suffer a childhood where I was unduly punished by rewards.