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GRAVES: Mitchell's teachers more deserving of accolades than any starlet

Joe Graves

A few months back, I finally got around to reading Harper Lee's one and only novel, "To Kill a Mockingbird." Knowing that it had been adapted into a highly reputed movie, I watched it with my wife soon after.

Though the movie version had the typical issues of abridging the content of the book in ways that I thought made it miss some rather fundamental parts of the story, a necessary evil given the limitless format of books and the rather stringent time limitations of movies, I still thought it held up very well.

At the end of the movie, the DVD I was watching it on then offered several special features to view, one of which was the Academy Award acceptance speech by Gregory Peck for best actor honors. It was terse, completely humorless and delivered in that Peck-ish voice/narrative so instantly recognizable and utterly unique to him. It was perhaps the first Academy Award speech I have ever heard that I didn't find completely annoying.

The truth is I find the Academy Awards to be the most self-serving, self-congratulatory excretion of codswollop imaginable. Is it really possible that Hollywood stars and starlets, people whose every movement and clothing choice are covered by the media, whose typically uninformed opinions (yeah, I know, look who's talking) are given instant credibility by adoring fans and multitudes of others who should and do know better, and whose compensation levels are grossly, obscenely beyond anything remotely justifiable need another outlet for their gargantuan egos?

Awards ceremonies should really not exist for people whose efforts -- essentially play-acting -- already are rewarded in such an exaggerated, overblown fashion. This doesn't mean, however, that awards ceremonies shouldn't exist at all. They should. They should exist for people whose efforts are insufficiently acknowledged, are critical to society, and (not or) are less than adequately compensated. In other words, teachers and others who work with children in schools are precisely the sort of people for whom awards ceremonies should exist.

And thus the employee recognition banquet of the Mitchell School District which was held last week. Twenty-four teachers, paraprofessionals, custodians/maintenance people, secretaries, and food service employees recognized for significant lengths of service (15-40 years each). Eleven retirees from a life of educating children, totaling a rather stunning combined tenure of 278 years. Five teachers all vying, yet somehow humbly, for the Mitchell School District teacher of the year award which, this year for the first time, ended in a tie.

(I'm not fond of ties -- they say it's like kissing your sister but since I don't have a sister, I can't vouch for the validity of the comparison -- but in this case, knowing all of these people and completely edified by their skills and long service, I cannot raise even a timid argument in objection.)

Yes, these are the people who deserve awards ceremonies and the relatively meager but nevertheless heartfelt recognitions we provide in our annual employee recognition banquet, and for all three of the reasons noted above. Teachers and other school employees put in long days and frequently thankless ones, days in which they are far more likely to hear the student complaints of excessive work and grading unfairness as well as parental complaints along those same lines than they are any words of appreciation or laud. Yet their work is absolutely essential to society for it is in the classroom where the next generation learns the skills for the workforce, the reflections for appropriate self-understanding, and the underpinnings for the democratic society in which the merits and responsibilities of freedom must be renewed and re-invigorated. And their work is, given that incredible importance, systematically under-compensated, not perhaps according to market forces, but unarguably by any notion of intrinsic value.

Yet year after year they continue the struggle, modestly, quietly, and, most of the time, even happily. And year after year it is why we offer this small event, offer this small token of our gratitude, for people who so richly deserve it.