New Ways to Celebrate Mediocrity
My immediate reaction to much of what I read online or in the paper is usually of interest, disgust or fatigued exasperation. Even when my reaction is a combination of all three, I usually don’t also think of a movie I haven’t seen in a long time.
Then I read about those recent wild, graduation parties, opulently celebrating success and promotion — from the 8th grade. Interest; disgust; fatigued exasperation. Then, I thought:
It’s been a long time since I’ve seen The Incredibles.
Having seen animation from both sides of the Pacific, and a lot of it, I have some authority to say that among the Pacific-sized morass of crappy cartoons, The Incredibles stands out. Even years afterward, it remains one of the few that entirely avoids typical conventions: journeys of self-discovery, boneheaded comic relief henchmen and breaking into song. It’s also one of the few movies with substantive depth.
The Incredibles had novel, distinct themes, and, like few other animated movies, had them in the plural sense. The most central theme went to the effect that “if everyone is incredible, then no one is.”
When I first saw the movie, it resonated. It shouldn’t surprise me that it also resonates with the idea of full-blown eighth-grade graduations.
In the last few weeks at Community Middle School in Plainsboro, N.J., year-end activities have included a formal dance; the Cameo awards, an Oscars-like ceremony for students in the television and video production classes; a trip to Hersheypark in Pennsylvania; and a general awards assembly. On Thursday evening there was a salute to the entire class. On Friday, the class picnic.
Community Middle’s veneration of its young teenagers is neither unique nor particularly excessive (the dance was in the gym). Across the country, in urban and suburban school districts, in rich communities and impoverished ones, eighth-grade celebrations now mimic high school or even college graduations: proms, the occasional limousine, renditions of “Pomp and Circumstance,” dignitaries speechifying and students in caps and gowns loping across the stage for diplomas. …
In many towns the sophistication and expense of the graduations are surging. The Internet teems with teenagers seeking comments about dresses and hairstyles for year-end events. Party planners, caterers and invitation designers market themselves for eighth-grade parties.
The students at the middle school in Briarcliff Manor, N.Y., an affluent community, enjoy a dinner cruise with a D.J. around Manhattan. And in the stricken schools of Chicago’s South Side, Mr. Cowling said, “It’s a big business event: everyone has on a new outfit, manicures, pedicures, the hair” for a ceremony that can last two hours. “And then,” he said, “kids go to 5, 10 parties in the neighborhood, in hotels.”
What damage do we do to our kids, when we celebrate moving from the eighth grade to the ninth? How do they develop a sense of distinction, when everyone is distinguished? Do we really want to devalue success, for the sake of keeping everyone feeling good about themselves? Why feel good about doing the absolute minimum?
Ego egalitarianism is the wrong path. We need to encourage success and recognize failure, rather than give everyone that gold star of triviality. If not, we might end up like Kurt Vonnegut foretold, Madeline L’Engle affirmed, and Bob “Mr. Incredible” Barr ranted.
It is not a graduation. He is moving from the fourth grade to the fifth.
It’s a ceremony.
It’s psychotic. They keep coming up with new ways to celebrate mediocrity.
Celebrating marginal success encourages marginal success. That’s bad any way you look at it.
What are the appropriate lengths for celebrating an eighth grade graduation, so that it doesn’t encourage marginal success? How much is overkill, and how much is ideal?