Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Life Competitions

The notice brought back memories of competitions endemic to the typical high school experience -- from Homecoming Queen to the senior class designations of "Most Popular" and "Most Likely to Succeed" that gave accolades to the already blessed and left many others feeling diminished.

It was a notice announcing that officials at my high school were thinking of giving a lifetime achievement award to an alum who had graduated between 1933-1970.

As kind as their intentions may be, it made me wonder how the committee would decide which alum had the most notable life? What, from this vantage point, is the epitome of a life well-lived? Does it make any sense to imagine a competition of lives?

I have sudden flashback to a daytime television competition of the 1950's I used to watch when I was home from school recovering from polio. "Queen for a Day" was a daily competition to see who had the worst, most pathetic life. Each contestant would tell her sad tale, weeping, sometimes needing physical support from host Jack Bailey. The winner would be determined by the Applause-O-Meter from the audience -- with the woman whose tale of woe garnered the loudest applause becoming "Queen for a Day." The winner would be gifted with Kelvinator home appliances and a limo ride to the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel where she would have a "dinner fit for a Queen". Then she would be tossed back into her miserable life, making way for the next Queen for a Day.

Does making judgements about the value of one life against another in terms of lifetime achievement make any more sense -- or is it any kinder?

In level playing fields, judging one aspect of endeavor -- like the Oscars or Tonys or Emmys -- is one thing.

But when it comes to judging lives well lived, does professional achievement count more than raising children to be good people?

Does achievement in a high profile, highly publicized career mean more than working just as hard (or harder) in relative anonymity as a special ed teacher or a dedicated elementary or high school or, for heavens sake, a middle school teacher?

Isn't a person who comes from a disadvantaged background and becomes the first person in his or her family ever to attend college or graduate from high school deserving of recognition?

Is someone who had a large number of biological children more notable than someone who adopted some special needs children or another person who had no children but dedicated herself to a variety of causes benefiting children?

And haven't women, in particular, suffered enough from competitive divisions -- from media-fueled Mommy Wars to negative perceptions of some endeavors performed primarily by women, from full-time motherhood to working in "pink collar" jobs?

Even in the Fifties, when our mothers were most likely homemakers and stay-at-home parents, some of us were not immune to such attitudes.

 I remember with shame announcing to my mother than my primary life ambition was not to be her.  And she had the good grace to encourage my ambitions, letting me know that she had faith in me. And, if I was good and did all my chores that day, I could sneak a peak at her scrapbook which detailed the exciting career that she gave up when I was born.  My mother, raised on a small Kansas farm, graduating from high school in 1931,  at the height of the Great Depression, couldn't afford to go to college but did go to nursing school because students were paid to attend. She excelled, getting special certification in psychiatric nursing at Menniger's and then joined American Airlines as a flight attendant in 1935, a time when flight attendants were required to be nurses and were considered to be pioneers on par with later female astronauts. There were clippings of her life story in pictures run in a national magazine, pictures of her giving an aviation pioneer award to Eleanor Roosevelt (who had autographed the picture), with movie stars Gene Autry and a very young Ann Miller, ads where she gave personal endorsements to products from shampoo to milk, stills from radio broadcasts, items from gossip columns.  I struggled to reconcile this beautiful, glamourous woman with the tired, frazzled, somewhat overweight mother I knew.  I remember remarking to her that leaving her career for her present life seemed an enormous sacrifice. She disagreed. "It's just another life phase," she always told me. "I loved flying. I love being a mother."  And she cheered me on as I endeavored not to be like her and encouraged my admiration for my father's younger sister, Aunt Molly, who was a single, childless career woman.  Looking back, I am overwhelmed by her love and generosity.

So who is to judge what achievements could prompt a high school's life achievement award? A highly visible career? A happy family life? A life dedicated to good works? Some combination? And how about people who aren't fortunate in some area of life  -- such as moms raising children alone following a divorce or death of a spouse who manage to support and teach their children well? Or people whose lives are challenged by a debilitating illness or disability and who continue to contribute to their families and to the world.

It seems to me that, rather than making recognition of one person the focal point of a school reunion, it is kinder and much more realistic to celebrate all alums for their lifetime achievements and for us to celebrate each other for all the challenges we've had and the choices we've made in our lives. All of our lives, after all, have had their triumphs and tragedies.

At this point, perhaps, we should be happy just to be living and to have a chance to celebrate each other for a rich variety of lives well-lived.


  1. Thought=provoking as ever, Kathy. This is one area of life of which I have no experience as the kind of high school awards you mention don't exist in the UK to my knowledge. They certainly didn't when I was at school.

    I agree entirely with you that a life-time achievemt award would be very invidious and unrepresentative of the multitude of ways in which your high school contempraries (and mine) have contributed to the world.

    Incidentally, your mother's achievements remind me of my mother, who didn't attend high school because of poverty, left school at 14 in 1930 and worked her way up by means of evening classes, first to be a book-keeper and finally a fabric designer, and like your mother had to give this up when she married.

  2. Very interesting post! I believe it's the first time I've ever seen this topic on a blog post. Good for you for bringing this up.

  3. I agree that it diminishes the diverse achievements of all of the class members to honor only one person...unless you win of course. Then you accept graciously and give an oscar worthy acceptance speech!

  4. Queen for a Day! I had forgotten that one.

  5. This is another great post! I remember 'Queen for a Day'! My mother and grandmother adamantly believed that the stories were all made up! But I was facinated then as now I would be appalled! I just loved reading about your mother. Once again evidence of how amazing so many 'ordinary' women are!

  6. These days we celebrate when we hear of someone's son or daughter going to nursing school ... because we know they'll be one of the few who will be able to get a job!

  7. Thanks so much for your comments! Yes, "Queen for a Day" was really something -- definitely an ancestor of our current reality t.v.!

    You're right, Sightings. A nursing degree is so valuable! My sister does very well and loves her work, too. It's the best of both worlds -- job security and good pay combined with a great variety of very satisfying work.