An 11-year boy in Indiana won an award last week that shocked his parents. The child won “most annoying male.” His angry parents told reporters their son is non-verbal autistic and sometimes rocks back and forth, or shakes.

Does anybody really win in school award ceremonies?

Child with autism earns “most annoying” award, igniting debate over the value of end-of-year recognitions

I received some stern rebukes the last time I wrote a critical piece about school award programs, which I think are minefields that ought to be avoided. Unhappy readers told me award assemblies conclude the school year on a high note and recognize outstanding work.

I don’t agree. As a poster on my AJC Get Schooled Facebook page noted: 

As a teacher, I always hated awards day. Good students know they are good students. Poor students don't need to sit and be embarrassed at not walking across the stage. Learning is NOT a competition.

I last wrote about this a year ago when an awards ceremony at a local metro school recognized all but two of the students. The two outcasts shared something in common: they were new to the class that year. That happens when you are the child of active military and move around. 

The military mom told me, "I don't think there's a good explanation for 97 percent of a class receiving awards and isolating two students."

Neither do I.

Award ceremonies either recognize every child with fabricated categories or the same favored few over and over. Why not dump the awards ceremonies and simply hold end-of--the-year celebrations where everyone feels valued and has a good time? 

Now, I am writing about award ceremonies again, prompted by an egregious example in the news of why they ought to be booted. An 11-year boy in Indiana won an award that shocked his parents. The child won the honor of “most annoying male.” It said so right on his trophy, just under the name of the school that somehow was misspelled. 

His upset parents told reporters fifth-grader Akalis Castejon is non-verbal autistic and sometimes rocks back and forth, or shakes. "You'd think one would know and understand the conditions of autism and have more patience to deal with children who suffer from autism," mom Estella Castejon said. 

"I didn't want to cause a scene with other parents there, so I left the award on the table and tried walking away, but the teacher came back and said Akalis forgot his award," said his father, adding that his son does not understand what the award means.

When I shared this news story this week on the blog’s Facebook page, it prompted outrage.  

-Did they give out "most annoying teacher" awards? How about the "most improved sadist"? They should have.

-Awards Days are gross in general, but who would give out awards like this?!

-I have no idea why any teacher or administrator would think this was funny in anyway. Or appropriate. Can we please do away with the stupid awards and just finish the year?

A parent told me her softball-playing daughter was humiliated at a school sports banquet when she won “most likely to miss practice due to a headache.” Her daughter suffered from migraines all her life. The mortified teen decided not to play softball the following year after the banquet. 

In writing about awards last year, I turned to my favorite education contrarian Alfie Kohn who told me, "Either an awards ceremony is a joke to kids -- in which case, why do it? -- or it's taken seriously, in which case it can do real harm. And no one escapes that harm. It's not hard to see how resentful and demoralized the losers often become. But perceptive people can see that the winners, too, ultimately lose from competition. They, too, come to see themselves as worthy only to the extent they've defeated others -- a recipe for neurosis. They, too, come to see everyone else as obstacles to their own success, which destroys any possibility of creating a sense of community and caring in the school; and they, too, come to see the learning as just a prerequisite for getting that public pat on the head."

After my story last year, a critic suggested in an email that I was a sore loser likely because I never won anything. My K-8 Catholic school only gave two awards each year, and they went to graduating eighth graders. 

And I got one of them. 

The problem was I earned the religion award, which was a holy medal. My classmate Riccardo got the good citizenship award, which was $25. He wanted to be a priest and attended church daily, while I skipped it every chance I could. However, I had been class president for several years, organized many student events and hoped to be a lawyer. But girls always got the medals, and boys always got the cash. 

So, the critic was only half right. I am a sore winner.

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About the Author

Maureen Downey
Maureen Downey
Maureen Downey has written editorials and opinion pieces about local, state and federal education policy since the 1990s.