Dear Headmaster: I Have A Bone To Pick

Dear Headmaster,

I have a bone to pick with you.

But, first, let me make something perfectly clear: my primary drink for the last five years has been your school’s Kool Aid. Not only do I drink it when and wherever I can, I make pitchers of it and serve it to everyone I know. It’s that good.

The reason we made the very difficult family decision to switch our children from our respectable town public schools to your extraordinary (but costly) private institution was because we completely bought into your “whole child” approach to education. The fact that my children could receive excellent academic training AND be immersed in high quality arts and athletics was a big sales point for us. And all the opportunities to expose our children to the reality that the world (near and far) is made up of people who live differently from us and that we need to find ways to understand, communicate with, and when needed help those people really made the switch to your school inevitable. We want our children to be more than school graduates. We want them to be thriving citizens of the world.

You made good on your promises. Academics, Arts, Athletics, Civics, Cultural Competence. I credit you with engaging my children and building their desire to use their unique skills and talents to make a difference in the world. To help make the world a better place.

So you wonder, what more could I ask?

Here it comes, dear Headmaster, so maybe you should sit down.

There is one more, very important thing. It is something that truly irks me and makes me question whether this past Monday’s Kool Aid was somehow polluted. Did it get left out in the sun too long?

As you know, each year, on the day before 8th grade graduation, the school salutes the graduating students. The beaming class of soon-to-be graduates sits on stage in the auditorium while each grade (pre-K through 7th) sings an original goodbye song to them. The school watches an always poignant slideshow of moments from the graduating class’s years at your institution. And awards are presented to students who’ve shown themselves to be markedly superior in each of the areas of learning which this fine institution promotes and nurtures. Nine school “cups” (silver bowls, actually) are awarded by the athletic department, the performing arts department, the art department, the trustees, the faculty and the Head of School.

I am not somebody who believes that a middle school should not present awards to their students, despite the concern among many that it would make those not receiving awards feel bad. I think it is important to recognize those who work hard, focus energy on developing their talents, show compassion toward others, and simply make a difference in the school community.

And I love how the ceremony at our school functions. An award is described, the student or students receiving the award is called to the podium, and the presenter shares with the audience their take on why this particular student is deserving of public recognition. To watch the deserving student as the presenter speaks touches my heart so deeply, I often find my eyes full of tears, even when I don’t know the student prior to the presentation.

But this year, because my child was graduating, I did know all of the students who received awards, so it was doubly touching to watch, especially since I believe that the school made excellent choices regarding the awardees. And everything went smoothly, at first. Hearing about the sportsmanship, drive and ability of two wonderful athletes; watching as the extremely talented student performer listened to words of how his dedication to his craft enriched the school community; admiring the lovely, quiet student who was honored for her outstanding creative effort in the fine arts.

Then, the Trustee Cup was awarded. This cup is awarded for academic excellence to the highest-ranking student in the 8th grade class. The student was called up to the podium. The presenter and you, dear Headmaster, shook her hand and gave her the small silver bowl. All smiles, she stood, waiting to be acknowledged like the other award recipients. There was a little kerfuffle, a brief conversation between you and the student, and she nodded and took her award back to her seat with the other students.

The next five awards followed the same tradition as the first three. Presenters recognized students for outstanding achievements and personal qualities; for positively influencing the school community; for thoughtfulness and manners; for making best use of their talents; and for best expressing the ideals and spirit of the school through effort and character, athletics, and scholarship.

Do you see where I’m a little bit confused? No. A whole lot confused. And disturbed.

I’ll be very clear with you here: I thought academics was a very important part of what this school is about. I’ve seen the work my child brings home and I’ve seen what goes on in the classroom. Everything points to a school that values scholarship. As a matter of fact, your mission is to instill in students a lifelong love of learning. Surely academics are a vital part of that equation. Yet, the only student awardee who was not praised by her presenter, who actually was humiliated when she was told by you (as I learned later) that they didn’t have anything to say about her because they’d just figured out the night before who was ranked highest, was the student who excelled most in academics as shown through her class rank.


When mentioned later, one person said that the reason they didn’t honor her in the same way was that her award was merely a calculation.

Bullshit (this is one of those moments where it is acceptable to curse in a formal letter).

The student who achieves the highest scores in her class is much more than a calculation. There is a lot of work that goes into getting good grades, and while like the skilled athlete, said student might be naturally more talented academically than a portion of her class, she also, like the skilled athlete is a combination of many attributes outside of her “talent” that led to her high scores. If the school recognizes the sportsmanship or dedication to craft or creative effort in athletics or performing arts or fine arts, shouldn’ t they be recognizing the contributions and hard work and effort that went into this child’s academic excellence?

I suppose if the student with the highest rank was somebody who kept her head down in her books all of the time and only cared about her grades that maybe there isn’t a lot to say about that student. If that were true, I’d say acknowledge that student in some other venue. Don’t put her on the stage with all her friends and tell them how great they are and call her a calculation.

The interesting thing is that this student who received the Trustees Cup on Monday is an amazing kid. I’m not alone in thinking that. Her teachers, her peers, the parents of her peers say that she contributes a tremendous amount to her class and the school. She is anything but a calculation.

My children are now graduated from your school. I imagine that I will still drink and serve your Kool Aid, but I have to say that right now, after I’ve drunk my fill, I’m left with a rather bad taste in my mouth.


The Proud Mother of an Amazing, Recent 8th Grade Graduate of Your School





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18 thoughts on “Dear Headmaster: I Have A Bone To Pick

  1. Funny…that bad cool-aid must have been spread around. At our 8th grade graduation – from a private school which wasn’t as costly as some but does promote academic excellence and citizenship – two of the graduates, both girls, got up to share a prayer for their classmates. In that prayer, they said they hoped the girls would each find their Prince Charming and the boys would all “touch the rim” and be a success in life.
    I almost stopped the show.
    I wasn’t the only one.
    It was especially ironic b/c ALL of the academic honors and most of the other awards went to girls in the class. I don’t know if they had any adult oversight in putting together the prayer, but I was absolutely appalled that somehow they thought that finding a man should be every woman’s life goal, while being a champion should be every man’s. The two girls who shared the prayer will be going to the two most selective, competitive high schools next year. One promises to become President of the United States.
    She could.
    What was she thinking?
    Okay, I didn’t mean to highjack your blog post with one of my own, but I’m still simmering. Women have come so far in the last 100 years, but smart girls – and the people around them – still have so much to learn.

    1. Why is it that with every two steps forward there must be a step back? Your story is shocking to me, especially that the prayer was given by a couple of 14 year old girls about to conquer the world. If, in fact, they realize that they are truly able. No apologies for highjacking. While I’m disturbed by what you’ve said, I also feel like I’ve gained a deeper perspective into what we’re still struggling to change.

  2. Oh, Sara, that is SO appalling! I hope the girl that got the award wasn’t too bothered by it. I can’t imagine how that must have felt. SO LAME. I hope you really sent a letter to the headmaster, because that is something that should never happen again. If they really didn’t know until the night before that she was the person that would be getting the award, they are not on top of what is happening at the school – I’m pretty sure they could have narrowed things down to 2 or 3 students weeks in advance of final grades. And beyond that, shouldn’t the headmaster KNOW his students? Being a private school, I imagine that the classes are pretty small, and the headmaster has had 8 years to get to know these kids – if he couldn’t think of anything to say about a student who has been excelling in his school for 8 years, that is a problem. Is he on vacation? WTF?

    1. The girl was fine even though she was baffled by the whole incident. Of course they knew who the top students were and the Headmaster did know the student pretty well, which is why I am so baffled. I do plan to get in touch with the Headmaster directly but for a variety of reasons I am concerned about whether what I will say will have the impact that I want to make. I have to say writing this blog letter certainly helped me but it is not enough because I don’t want this to happen to another student next year.

  3. Wow. Seriously? They didn’t have anything to say because they had just calculated it the night before? Perhaps they could have talked about how much work goes into being the top of the class- that doesn’t even require knowing which person is the awardee. Perhaps they could have calculated her grades then taken 5 minutes to review her record or ask her teachers about her character. Perhaps they could have looked a week ahead at who the potential awardees might be. Even without final grades, surely there were only a few in the running of top academic student. Grrrr! I’m so angry for you and for that student and her family! This school should be ashamed of themselves for their oversight.

    1. I agree completely. Hopefully, the school will realize how wrong this was and will change things for next year. Thanks for the validation, Sherri.

  4. Incomprehensible and utterly appalling. Apparently the headmaster could take a few lessons in preparedness from that student. I do hope you write your letter to the headmaster. He needs to hear from you and other parents and students who thought what he did was unkind, disrespectful, and ridiculous. You are a talented writer – I’m sure your letter will have a positive impact and will hopefully prevent this kind of thing from happening again.

    1. Thanks Tami for the support. I do hope that I can have some impact. Maybe I’ll send the HEadmaster over to my blog and let him read it and the uproar of comments from all of you.

  5. Wow.

    If I were her, I would have been humiliated. Perhaps the administrators thought the social connotation of her exclusion from the praise every other awardee received would be lost on an eighth grader, but that is far from the truth. I struggled for years to keep top grades and lost the honor of being valedictorian or salutatorian by a thousandth of a percent because they didn’t factor in my advanced placement courses because I took them as a junior. It takes so much work and a lot of sacrifice to maintain that kind of academic achievement, and your daughter should have been commended for her effort. That they snubbed her is an outrage.

    I can’t help but wonder how it would have gone if the winner of the Trustees Cup had been male.

    1. I have to hope that the situation wouldn’t have been different if the winner had been male. That would crush me even more than I already feel. I agree that it unfair. I’m glad my child is a pretty resilient being. I’m not sure I’d have come through it so evenly.

  6. How disappointing that must’ve been πŸ™ I would’ve thought recognition of academic excellence would’ve been at the top of the list, it being, you know, a school and all.

    1. The thing is my kids learned so much in the classroom here and I really find the academic program to be challenging and complex. So I think academic excellence is at the top of their list just it somehow doesn’t translate to the awards ceremony.

  7. This is an outrage and so totally unacceptable! And to be the Headmaster of an extraordinary private institution, courtesy, common sense, and compassion should be high on the list of job requirements. Somebody didn’t do their homework … and it obviously wasn’t the winner of the Trustees Cup!

    I hope she realizes what a great accomplishment she’s achieved and doesn’t let his ignorance overshadow what should be a defining moment for her!

    It will be really disappointing if other parents don’t speak up about this show of disrespect on the Headmasters part. Some things just shouldn’t be tolerated!

    1. I am buoyed by your outrage BUT I have to explain that the Headmaster has run an amazing school for very long. He’s always shown respect for the students and the parents, so this moment of disconnect, while difficult for our family and perhaps misguided, is not representative of the Headmaster or the faculty or the learning environment. I honestly think that this was one of those bizarre moments where somebody who usually makes the correct choice regarding his students made the wrong one. I also think that it is really important to make sure the Headmaster understands how this wrong decision effects his students, parents, etc. and what it unfortunately communicates about a truly wonderful school.

  8. Sara–would it be out of line for me to say this is one of my favorite posts of yours? Your anger, frustration and confusion are so clear that I feel them, too. Strongly.

So what do you think?