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How To Do A Great End Of The Year Awards Ceremony

Last week, the Veritas school year wrapped with an awards ceremony, the same sort of awards ceremony most schools wrap with. The fact that awards ceremonies are a common way of ending the school year doesn’t mean they are easy to do well, though I am quite proud of ours. There are a number of things Veritas does and doesn’t do at the awards ceremony that make it a dignified, satisfying conclusion to the school year—and I single out the word “dignified” because I have heard plenty of stories from teacher friends across the country about their year-end awards ceremonies which made them seem more like variety shows than anything else. The Veritas awards ceremony feels like a genuine ceremony, and I think it accomplishes this in a number of ways.

First, the Veritas awards ceremony is only one hour long, students dress in their formal uniforms, and it is the very last thing which happens in the school year. When I say “the very last thing,” I mean the academic dean prays at the end of the awards ceremony and then says, “Alright, have a great summer!” After that, there’s no lockers to clean, no textbooks to return, no nothing. There’s a loud cheer and everyone adjourns to the quad to say their goodbyes. In this, our awards ceremony banks on the importance which every real beginning and every real end has. Almost all holy days (Christian, pagan, secular) mark the beginning of something or the end of it. When an awards ceremony is the actual factual last thing which happens in the school year, everything which happens during the ceremony has greater heft. The ceremony is the formal operation by which the year is closed out. When the ceremony is held with three days of school left, the actual end of the year is anticlimactic. Students depart a math exam one by one, mill around the hallway a moment, say, “I guess that’s it,” and then walk home or wait to get picked up. The school year really ought to end on a moment where everyone is assembled together. It ought to end with honor given, honor received, prayer, and joy.

Next, the Veritas awards ceremony is generous with honor. Around twenty awards are given out, which I think neither stingy nor prodigal. I have been to schools where the end of the year awards ceremony acknowledged every student who made the dean’s list, every student who made honor roll, every student who had perfect attendance, every student in the National Honor Society, and the ceremony was interminable because forty students were called to the stage four different times to collect a certificate. If a school is giving out so many awards that no one can remember who won what an hour later, it’s giving out way too many. If you’ve got to say, “Hold your applause for the end, we’ve got to finish this thing before midnight,” on multiple occasions, the honor you’re giving out isn’t real honor.

The most significant awards Veritas gives are known as “the departmental book awards.” Each department (languages, performing arts, math, and so forth) chooses one student whose zeal, talent, and commitment to that subject is exemplary. As opposed to handing this student a trophy or plaque, the humanities department or math department chooses a book for that student which will intrigue, delight, and further their interest in the subject. It’s fitting for a classical school to give out books as prizes if only because a book stands a much better chance of lasting than a trophy. At 41, I have zero certificates I was given in high school, but I still have the book my high school English teacher (now my mother-in-law) gave me when I graduated.

Each of the departmental book awards is given out by a faculty member who takes the stage and praises the student who has won the award. The praise is often rendered is slightly veiled terms (“This year, the science book award goes to a student who has…”) and students look at each other, whisper names like questions, and try to figure out who is being described before their name is given in the end. This small infusion of drama into the proceedings goes a long way into making the event fun—which shouldn’t be a priority, but I feel like our ceremony comes by it honestly.

Finally, the longest portion of our awards ceremony is the senior acknowledgments, but ours moves at a good clip. The high school principal briefly describes each senior’s labor and accomplishments, announces what the graduate is doing the following year, and then reads a short list of staff and faculty that graduate wants to thank. Each entry goes something like this:

“Mary Jones began attending Veritas in sixth grade. She played basketball for two years, ran track for two years, and placed second in the state moot court competition her senior year. In the fall, she will attend New College Franklin in Franklin, Tennessee. Mary would like to thank Dr. Smith for helping her love chemistry and Mrs. Sparrow for helping her re-write her Beowulf paper five times in eighth grade.”

That’s it. Quick, but also informative and punchy. So far as the thank-you’s go, each graduate has to be very brief, and it’s always interesting to see which teachers made a deep impression on which students. It’s a revelation—and the end of a thing should always involve some sort of significant revelation.

What doesn’t happen at the Veritas awards ceremony? There are no performances, no gags, and no students take the microphone. I’m not opposed to students taking the mic at other events, but not at the final awards ceremony because the temptation to be flighty or trite or jokey (or to not properly prepare) is too great. There are no long speeches, no sermons, and nothing designed to be Instragrammed. Instead, the mood is formal but not bureaucratic. It’s a ceremony, not a party. The ceremony is brief but thorough—thorough but not overstuffed. Simply put, it’s all very classical Christian.

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