Chart Number 169

May 8, 2015

By Ekta R. Garg

About two months ago Six won her division of an art contest held by the university; on the same date when she competed in a different event and lost, Eight showed a lot of grace as she watched her little sister go on stage in front of everyone to accept her certificate.

Last week, in an ironic twist of what can only be called fate, Six watched her sister acknowledge a ribbon she won for art. The kicker came in the fact that Six had also entered a piece in this second art competition and only received a green participant ribbon.

This entire situation started back in April. A couple of weeks after Six won the competition at the university, one of the girls brought home a flyer with information about another art competition. This one would be conducted by the park district for anyone in our city and only had two divisions: youth (for anyone up to the age of 18) and adult. Artists could enter any type of art—photography, sculptures, sketches, and paintings, among other mediums.

With Six riding high from her recent win, I thought this would offer her another opportunity to exhibit her art. I certainly didn’t expect her to win, which may sound a little cruel, but I mean it with full confidence in my daughter. She’s a budding artist, and I hope we can help her develop this talent. Sometimes she produces pictures that make me look first at the picture and then at her with a sense of wonder. How can a six-year-old create something with that level of sophistication, I wonder.

Other times her art fits her age. And because the city art show didn’t have any parameters for creating the artwork—no prompts or themes—I had to be practical. Six has talent, but there are many children and adults in town who have practiced the craft for much longer than her. Chances are, I reasoned, one of them would probably get recognized and Six might not.

Still, I offered her the chance to enter. When Eight said she wanted to enter a piece as well, I said okay.

The girls and I discussed what they wanted to draw. They both produced pictures about 24 hours after I told them about the art contest, and the pictures looked a little rough around the edges. I told them they should take the lead time—about four weeks before the deadline—to plan what they wanted to create. They could make a couple of rough sketches, I said, and think about their final pictures before actually creating them.

It took a little convincing—Six wanted to turn in what she drew that first day—but I finally did it. Making the kids take more time to draw their pictures gave me time to do a little research. Apparently the art contest organizers wanted to make this event mirror a real gallery showing and required that the pieces be both matted and framed.

Now, let’s be clear on something: I love my kids and will do almost anything for them. Almost.

When the girls created their art, they chose 9 x 12 sketch paper. Here’s the funny thing about getting stuff framed. Most frames don’t come in a 9 x 12 size, which means you have to move up to a larger size. Then you have to find a matte to fit the picture. But mattes don’t come in 9 x 12 either.

I’ll do anything for my kids, within reason.

I would not, however, spend almost $30 per picture to get them matted and framed. That’s how much Michael’s wanted to charge me.

I really like Michael’s; it’s a wonderful store. But I knew that after the art contest the pieces would come home, and I didn’t want to spend a lot of money on a one-time contest entry. Well, two times, considering it was for both kids.

After some thought and research—which included spending quite a bit of time staring at frames and comparing them side by side in the middle of different stores—I decided to put the kids’ pictures in 11 x 14 frames and then use poster board in colors complementary to the pictures to create mattes. I read the contest rules several times, and nowhere did it say I had to get the pictures professionally matted. So I decided to take advantage of the wiggle room.

I matted the pictures, put them in the frames, and the kids and I went on the designated day to drop them off. Then the waiting for the judging began. We had plenty of things to keep us busy in the meantime, but occasionally the kids would bring up the art contest. I gave them the same explanation every time: we’d just have to wait for the results.

The pictures were on display for the general public for about two weeks before the day of the final critique, which consisted of the judge walking with contestants and their families to each picture she chose to recognize and explaining why. In the last week before the critique, the judge hung the ribbons of the recognized art pieces and the two she chose as Best in Show.

The art pieces lined the halls of our local cultural center, which offers many programs through the park district including dance lessons. Two of Eight’s friends who take those lessons told her that they’d seen her picture with a ribbon next to it. One of these little girls in particular already exhibits the qualities of a settled, sedate child, someone who will always tell the truth and turn into a wonderful young woman. If she said Eight’s picture had a ribbon next to it, I believed her.

I wanted to see the ribbons for myself, though, so the day before the critique I went downtown and entered the cultural center. About halfway down the hall I saw it: Eight’s picture, which she titled “Kitty Dreams”, had a blue ribbon next to it. The ocean blue matte matched the ball of yarn next to the little cat looking up with a somewhat dreamy cast in its eyes.

I came back to the beginning of the hall and saw Six’s picture, called “Birds of Paradise”, with no ribbon next to it. Six had chosen to draw several birds against a riotous backdrop of green, meant to represent the rainforest. Her execution of the birds looked sophisticated; when she first showed the picture to me, though, I couldn’t help noticing that the birds seemed to get a little lost in the background. But that’s the way she wanted to submit her piece, and I didn’t want to discourage her.

When I saw that Eight had won a ribbon and Six hadn’t, I started to debate with myself about what to do next. Should I tell the girls? Should I just let them find out the next day at the critique? I worried more about Six; this girl, in true artistic temperamental form, hides a sensitive heart under her laughing eyes and bouncing body.

I had a hunch that I should tell them, though, and I called my husband to ask him his opinion. He agreed; tell the girls, he said, and prepare Six for what she would see the next day. So when I picked them up from school, that’s what I did.

Six’s mouth turned downward in a moment of suppressed frustration, and to her credit Eight accepted my praise for winning a ribbon with the utmost demureness. When we got to the cultural center the next day, the green “participant” ribbon hanging next to her picture buoyed Six’s spirits for a few minutes—until we explained that everyone who entered a piece got a green ribbon. The oversized purple ribbons went to the Best in Show pieces; the blue ribbons indicated pieces the judge thought should go on to the state competition in the fall.

“I got a ribbon, why can’t I put my picture in the competition in the fall?” she asked later at home, more than miffed.

I explained the whole thing to her again with the utmost of patience, and she seemed to accept my reasoning that time. Two days later as I helped her get ready for school, she played with the ribbon as it lay on her dressing table. Then she told me in the calmest manner that she didn’t think she should have gotten a participant ribbon at all. It didn’t mean anything, she said. There was no point to it.

Her words struck me then. In the last decade or so, school administrators, youth sports officials, and competition organizers, in an effort to take care of everyone’s feelings, have gone way too far in the other direction to coddle children, handing out ribbons and trophies and certificates just for showing up. As my daughter pointed out to me in her astute observation, ribbons just for showing up helped no one.

Things didn’t operate like this when I was young. I participated in my fair share of a variety of competitions, and if you didn’t win you didn’t get anything. No ribbon, no trophy, no certificate, nothing. You sat in your seat, felt bad for a few minutes as you watched the winner accept his/her award, and then went home determined to do better next time so you could be the one walking to the stage with an oversized smile on your face.

I wish people would stop feeling so scared to assign recognition to the kids who do well. It just might encourage those who don’t win to work harder, to compete with more vigor, to embrace more fully those attributes needed to succeed. In our continued efforts to equip our children with the tools needed to compete on a world stage—and they’re all competing on the world stage now, thanks to globalization—maybe taking them back to a good old-fashioned system of first, second, and third place would do them some good.