Last week, I presented an award at my suburban Kansas high school’s Honors & Awards assembly. While I graduated from high school over 15 years ago, I still drop by occasionally as a substitute teacher. Last month, I got a call from the school: They needed an alumnus of Columbia University to present the Columbia Book Award to an 11th grade student the faculty deemed deserving of that honor. (For comparison, there are also Smith, Wellesley and Jewish Theological Seminary book awards, which they also aim to have presented by graduates of those institutions.)
I explained to the admin who called me, “I’m not the most distinguished graduate of Columbia University. I’m not particularly famous or successful. Heck, I live with my parents. But I am available to present the award.”
“That’s okay,” she told me. “We want you anyway!”
While this wasn’t the Oscars, I did my best to dress up: In a knee-length patterned dress, cardigan and wedge espadrille sandals. (Pretty much what all the female high school students at the assembly were wearing, too.) I even found my Columbia College Class of 2003 graduation pin and affixed it to the neckline of my dress.
I also realized that these juniors and seniors being honored were actually the middle school students I had when I first came to substitute teach at the school after I left my corporate job. “There’s so grown-up,” I thought, “I was pretty sure they’re all still in 6th and 7th grade.”
This presentation would be a surprise for the student receiving the award. The program listed the book award recipient as “To Be Announced.” While the school had provided a blurb for introducing and presenting the award, my heart raced as I gripped the folded printout, waiting for my turn to come up on stage.
“Too much coffee,” I thought.
My level of nervousness was almost like I was the one being presented with an award. As I watched the various students being called up to the stage, it triggered visceral memory of my own experiences as a high school junior sitting at an honors ceremony. The twinned sense of pride and panic as my name was called to accept a piece of paper proving my worthiness to the universe. “I am somebody,” my 16 year-old self thought, “I have awesome SAT scores. And these people think I’m great!”
My brain hurtled back into my adult body when I realized the Smith alumna was presenting her book award. According to the program, I was up next. After the appropriate clapping for the named recipient, I made my way up the stage stairs and to the podium, wobbling a little in my wedges. I nervously adjusted the microphone for my height and managed to read through the paragraph describing the award and announcing its recipient.
The surprised-looking kid came up to the stage. I shook her hand and presented her with the book award (a book of stories about Columbia University by Columbia alumni) as the audience clapped. We both made our way off the stage so the JTS book award presenter could take the podium.
I sat through the rest of the assembly in a what I can only describe as a “buzzed” state, feeding off the energy of the crowd around me, starting to flag as the rest of the audience suffered applause fatigue for the numerous awards and recognitions. My brain kept flickering between the memories of my 16-year-old self and the “wait, I’m a grown-up” realization that would follow.
There was also a subtle tinge of self-recrimination. I remember being the student getting called up for awards, having it announced at graduation that I would be attending a fancy private college in New York City in the fall. A little voice whispered: “What expectations I had then, that everyone seemed to have of me. I wonder how far short of them I’ve fallen.”
“Wait,” continued the grown-up part of my brain. “You graduated from Columbia University. It’s no guarantee of success or fame, but was an incredible learning and social experience. No one can negate those memories or the knowledge you gained, or the people you met or the amazing conversations you had.”
I wished I could tell all these high achieving kids (especially my 16-year-old self) that it’s okay to take the road less traveled, it’s good to take calculated risks and have adventures. That there are no guarantees, only different choices. Also, no matter what external pieces of paper or grades or test scores say, “You are enough.”
Eventually, the assembly concluded and we shuffled our way out of the auditorium. The head of school came by to shake my hand and thank me for coming. It felt good to be part of a community that cares so deeply for its students, especially when no matter how old I get, in some way I will always be one of them.