What I Told the Kids Who Didn’t Make Honor Roll

My ESOL and special needs kids didn’t win many awards this year … but they should have.

Students didn't make honor roll

We had our awards ceremony a couple of weeks ago. We did it at lunch. The kids got dressed up and the parents came and there were handshakes and pictures and it was all very celebratory. And then I got my fourth period class, which also happens to be my homeroom.

A few of them got awards. We had some perfect attendance, a PE award, and a technology award. I was very proud. But I have the ESOL homeroom. Nineteen ESOL kids, 10 of whom also have IEPs. They’re not an academically accelerated group. Their grades aren’t as high as the advanced class; many of them have repeated at least one grade, and some are likely to repeat this year. They don’t win poetry contests or get scholarships to fancy summer camps. They just get by … sometimes.

And they were reminded of that at the awards ceremony, watching their peers get recognized for academic excellence. So instead of reviewing direct and indirect objects at the beginning of class, here’s what I told my kids.

“Look, those of you who won awards, congratulations. We are so proud of you today and every day. Especially those perfect attendance awards. I know it’s hard to be here every single day—I certainly haven’t managed it—so I’m very impressed by those of you who have. You guys have worked really hard this year, and you should be proud of what you’ve accomplished.

And to those of you who didn’t win anything, we are so proud of you today and every day. Because the fact is, we can only give out so many awards. Especially in a 25-minute lunch period. But you guys amaze me every day, whether you get awards for it or not. The way Andrea’s baby brother’s face lit up when he saw her? That deserves an award. The way Marco hugged his mom, made sure she had a chair, and opened her car door for her? I would be so incredibly proud if he were my son. There should be an award for the fact that Guadalupe never lets anyone sit alone in the cafeteria, the way that Monserrat organized our class party, and the way Angel always volunteers to answer questions even if he’s not sure he’s right, just because he wants to learn.”

My kids were sitting up a little straighter now. I had more focused attention from them than I’d had at any point prior to this in the school year, so I kept going.

“We put so much focus on your academic achievements here, which makes sense, because it’s a school and that’s what we’re here for. And it’s true that you need to do well in school because you want to be successful in the future. But you are so much more than your grades or your test scores or even what your teachers think of you.

Hear me on this: whether you win awards, whether you make all A’s, whether you’re able to sit still for an entire class period has absolutely no bearing on your worth as a human being. You are a precious, wonderful, miraculous individual if you fail every single class and get suspended four times this year.

I want you to succeed. I want you to do your absolute best. And I want you to go on to great things. But I also want you to know that you’re already great, just as you are right now. We, your teachers, are overwhelmed by your awesomeness every single day, even if you don’t win awards for your math and reading skills.”

I closed the door for a little focused profanity—the absolute best way to get seventh graders to remember what you say.

“School is hard for every single one of you. And you show up every day. You work your asses off and I could not possibly be prouder.”

And then we went back to grammar.

Maybe this sounds like “everybody gets a trophy.” But these kids deserve a damn trophy. If they show up at school ready to learn despite homelessness, despite poverty, despite fear of deportation, despite exhaustion and hunger and lack of a clean school uniform, they deserve everything we can possibly give them. Some of them will test out of ESOL and move to a more advanced class next year. That’s wonderful. Some won’t. But if they leave my class with a sense of their own value, this year won’t have been in vain.

Posted by Captain Awesome

Captain Awesome teaches seventh grade English at an urban charter school for refugee and immigrant kids. She is a big fan of books, social justice, holiday-flavored coffee creamers, righteous indignation, and Friday Night Lights.

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