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Winning the Worst Award

Picture me at 22 years old, bright eyed with big hair and a big smile to match. I strode the campus of my college, Tufts University, with ease. I majored in psychology, and knew all the answers, all the time. I was the one near the front with my hand raised confidently in every class.


Follow me here, while I set the stage.


In high school, I spent a lot of time high, bored, and distracted. My natural intelligence usually kept me afloat. But in pre-calculus, I failed to pay attention, and key concepts slid by, imperceptibly at the time. My quarterly grades progressed like this: A, B, then C, and then an ominous D-. My pre-calculus teacher informed me he would grant me an unearned C for the course as long as I promised him not to take calculus the next year. He just didn’t want to deal with me anymore.


At Tufts, in contrast, I worked with laser-beam focus. I was all in. Challenged to take a math class, I decided to take calculus, wanting to prove my old math teacher wrong. This time, fully motivated, I carefully worked my way through each lesson, practicing and learning the concepts. My final grade for calculus: A+.


It wasn’t just academics. I played piano, acted, and sang. I auditioned into the women’s a cappella group and fell in love with close harmony singing. By senior year, I was elected music director of the group. I was a fair music director, writing decent arrangements. My strength was in leadership, being a warm, inspiring leader, creating better cohesion than the group had previously enjoyed.


(I’m still setting the stage.)


By my senior year at Tufts, I was selected and encouraged to apply for high academic scholarships like the Rhodes or the Fulbright. I did apply for a Rhodes, (and I didn’t get one), but I want you to see the picture. I was a bit of a star.


In April of my senior year, before graduation, I received notice that I would be recognized at the Academic Awards Night. This was a big deal. I asked around but none of my friends were given an invitation. I was not told what the award was for; that would be revealed at the presentation.


I burst with curiosity and anticipation. What award would I receive? Would I be selected for a psychology department award? A general academic award? A leadership award?


The Academic Awards ceremony was held in the beautiful Goddard chapel on a warm spring evening. Picture the Tufts campus, graced with tall trees and wide-open vistas, never as beautiful as it was in April, flowering and green. The chapel somehow was both intimate and expansive, filled with warm wooden pews and graced by a high vaulted ceiling.


I sat in a pew and rifled through the program, searching for my name. There were music awards but my name was not there. That seemed fair enough. I was a good musician but there were better ones. There were leadership awards but not for me. OK, once again, I had done a great job with my little a cappella group, but it was just one year of leadership, and others accomplished more than I.


I kept turning pages. There was a psychology department award, but my name was not listed. This perplexed me, because it seemed the only option left, and truly, I was one of the best students in the department. What award was left?


Finally, I saw it. The Sarah G. Kinney Memorial Prize (name changed) “is awarded to a junior or senior who has shown character, diligence, and perseverance in achieving high scholarship standards in the face of adverse circumstances. This prize was established in 1982 in honor of Sarah G. Kinney, an example of great courage and mental fortitude as she pursued her degree while battling an incurable illness.” My name was listed, along with two other students, whom I did not know.


The award was announced, and our three names were called. I stood up, and so did they. One of them walked with crutches and weakened legs, making his way painstakingly up the aisle. The other slowly guided himself to the front, tapping his cane so he could arrive safely, despite his visual impairment. I stood at the front of the chapel with these men. Just a minute prior, I thought I looked pretty in my short sleeved dress; now I felt exposed. I wished I could fall through a hole in the floor and never be seen again.


I didn’t want an award for being burned-but-smart-and-diligent. At the time, I worked so hard to not be that burned girl like I had been throughout my childhood. In college, I desperately wanted people to see me as more than that. I was intelligent! I could sing! I was super nice! That’s what I wanted people to think about me and I thought I had been successful. In one crushing moment, I realized that, no, even here in college, I was still just that burned girl.

I have never hated an award more in my life.


At the end of the evening, I walked back to my house which I shared with friends. My roommate Cindy was there, whom I had lived with for four years. We were very close. She smiled at me, “So, how was it? What award did you get?”


I gazed at her, plastering a smile on my face. I reached for self-deprecating humor, the defense so often used when humiliated, the only angle left for me at the end of that agonizing evening. “I got the well-adjusted gimp award.”

***

I never tell people about this award. To this day, it embarrasses me. Recently, I mentioned the award to my husband.


“What award?”


“You know, that award I won in college. The Sarah G. Kinney Memorial Prize.”


“I don’t know what you are talking about.” I hadn’t even told my own husband about the award.


What would I have preferred? Did I not want to be recognized for my strength and resilience? I think the answer is yes, perhaps. If the award had simply been for character, I would have felt proud. If the award had been for resilience, I would have felt more uneasy, because that implicitly introduces my personal backstory. But the award was for people battling challenging personal circumstances, which already felt exposing. When it was given exclusively to three students with visible physical difference, it felt excruciating.


I don’t want to be recognized for being a good-person-while-being-burned. Or being a smart-student-while-being-burned. If the accomplishment is moderated by my disability, then I become ”othered,” someone who is pitied and less-than. Imagine, for example, if you happen to be overweight, and were given a work award (publicly!) for being smart-while-chubby. Picture yourself at the departmental event, standing up to receive your award, perhaps along with your two other overweight coworkers. See how awful that feels?


In contrast, I proudly declare to anyone who will listen that I graduated Tufts summa cum laude. When I received my diploma, with this distinction enscribbed on it, it did NOT say summa-cum-laude-while-being-burned. It just said with highest honors. There is nothing embarrassing or cheapening there.


Like the good girl I was raised to be, I wrote a thank you note to the family of “Sarah G. Kinney.” I expressed my appreciation for the prize, and my condolences for their loss. I did not mention my embarrassment because I didn’t have words for it at the time, and also, it wasn’t appropriate. I mentioned that I was going to a doctoral program in psychology in the fall.


Shortly thereafter I received a letter back from Sarah’s father, the first line of which I will never forget: “Life is full of strange and unexpected coincidences, and we have just encountered one of them.” It turned out that Sarah’s father was a psychology professor at the very doctoral program I was about to attend. The story ended well enough. I got to know Sarah’s family; they were kind, and I was glad to have connected to them.


The Sarah G Kinney award was the last award I received for a long time. I did not earn an award at my doctoral program, nor earn any special recognition at my different jobs. Many years later though, I earned several distinctions for my book Flashback Girl. These were awards for writing. Again, not writing while burned. Just writing.


If I could go back to that April night in 1985, here’s what I would do. I would tell that crest-fallen girl, the one who tried so hard to fit in and not be noticed for her burns, that in time, everything would change. That she would embrace her identity as a visibly-different person. That she would write about it, and speak about it, and change some lives for the better. That she would eventually take pride in the scars, the history, and her struggle.


But I still wouldn’t give her an award for being smart-while-being-burned. I would give her an award for being a hell of a person.


The author in college

Lise Deguire's multiple award-winning memoir, Flashback Girl: Lessons on Resilience from a Burn Survivor, is available for purchase on Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Newtown Book Shop and The Commonplace Reader. Check out her TEDx talk "Scared Not Scary"



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