LETTER: If not for pandemic, Junior Book Awards at GHS would be this week.

Letter to the editor submitted by Janet Stone McGuigan

If the corona virus had not shuttered our schools, sometime around now a lovely ceremony would be taking place in the high school’s media center.

School administrators, teachers, local college alumni association representatives and parents would have gathered to laud the recipients of college book awards.  From the junior class, the awardees would have been chosen based on a wide range of merits, from academic achievement to community service to a demonstrated love of books.  In the past few years, I have attended several of these ceremonies and left feeling both humbled by and confident in our younger generation.

My participation in this ceremony came about after volunteering to be a presenter on behalf of my college alumni association.  There is a formula to the ceremony, of course.  A brief background of the student recipient is supplied in advance to the presenter, who is supposed to write up a concise and complimentary toast.  But after a few of these ceremonies the parent in me couldn’t resist the opportunity to speak to my younger self.

I had been awarded a college book in my junior year, and it was an incredible confidence booster.  I treasured that book.  And then sometime in my adulthood I realized the book had gone missing.  Having known only one home until I left for college, I had moved so many times since then I couldn’t be sure when I had lost it.  So I related that story in my little speech, and asked the students in the audience to look forward to future moves and the changes they bring, and rather than be sad if the book goes missing, to consider that it was an opportunity to make room for new books, and life’s way of making them share something precious with others.

Then this pandemic hit.  Daily routine stopped and left with little but time to fill at home, I decided to take on some much-needed organizing.  What did I find, but my college book, in a box that had been stored in my parents’ basement for probably twenty years.   And what a book for this time — The Poetry of Robert Frost, the national poet laureate so well known for “Mending Wall” (you know the one, “Good fences make good neighbors”).   A work worthy of being the Poem of the Pandemic.

I feel sad for our students.  School is a place of learning, the starting block of so many friendships and the backdrop of so many minor dramas.  That our students can’t gather together now is hard on them.  However disruptive this period of social distancing, I hope it will be a relatively brief one in their lives.  And in place of all the cancelled ceremonies, I wish for our students some small compensations.

Such as a reawakened joy of learning.  To address the reality that many students are struggling with the challenges of remote learning, some high schools (and colleges) are allowing classes to be taken pass/fail.  This is an option that the Greenwich Board of Education is currently considering.  Grades are obviously an important measure of a student’s aptitude and achievement, but educators, students and parents alike have long bemoaned the distorted value placed on them and the stress they cause.  Perhaps this social experiment will help us find ways to let students learn for the sake of learning.

Which is not to say that students should embrace a relaxed grading approach as justification to neglect their studies.  (Perhaps it was apocryphal, but at my college a story went around that a certain wine tasting course in the hotel administration school was the doom of at least a few seniors each year, who took the course pass/fail and actually FAILED.)

And if pass/fail is not an option, I hope our students come to know that a few low grades won’t hurt anyone.  If only because the low marks indicate they ventured outside of their comfort zone, or discovered how they learn best, and not because they didn’t try.

But most importantly, I’d like to tell these younger selves, once they are older, not to fear opening musty boxes in their basements.  One never knows what treasures will be rediscovered.