On Awards, Received, Denied and Coveted

When I was a kid, I was small and clumsy and very un-athletic.  Yet, at the end of every year of elementary school, we had “play day”, in which all students in the school competed in a series of quasi-athletic carnival-style games.

Of course, I never won.  I came close to taking third place in the “egg-and-spoon race” one year, but did not quite make the cut.  Back then, accolades were a rare thing.  I’m not ashamed to say that I cherished my yearly “participant” ribbon.  That was as close as I thought I would ever get to any kind of public recognition for anything.  Sad, right?

(To be honest, I regularly won the school-wide math prize back in my elementary school days, and even a regional writing prize… but such accomplishments were only limitedly announced or celebrated back then; all that mattered were athletics.  Little has changed, it seems.)

Many years later, I feel I’ve done all right in life.  And I think I’ve received recognition commensurate with my skills and accomplishments.  My writing career got me a few good prizes. The biggest was the 2000 Guyana Prize for Best First Work, a national literary award given by the country of my birth for my first book, Sweet Like Saltwater.

In fact, in my obituary, if indeed it manages to make it into what passes for a newspaper in that distant, far future date (gulp), will probably focus on that little award.  That’s it. That was probably the pinnacle of my life’s achievement, insofar as such things are to be measured by awards and honours.

There are some other awards that I really really really wanted, but did not get.  One of my short stories was nominated for the Journey Prize once, back when that prize was stil given to short stories (not sure if it still is.)  And, like every young novelist with a love for high literature, I confess to once having had dreams of maybe, possibly, hopefully one day writing something worthy of a Booker Prize nomination. Poor sales of my one and only novel quashed that hope!

My fiction-writing life is pretty much over, so I gave up fantasies of literary stardom some time ago.

But my scientist life chugs along. I’ve never held fantasies of winning science awards.  In fact, the idea of a science award puzzles me.  It’s not the sort of thing that I think lends itself to prizes or accolades. Frankly, to be candid, I think I’m a competent researcher;  but I’m a much better writer.  Winning recognition for my academic achievements seems ludicrous to me, whereas being celebrated for being a writer seemed a rational, laudable and accessible goal.

Even so, I am quite proud of the way that I’ve combined my writing and science lives.  Despite being nominated three times, and each time receiving special recognition from the jury, I’ve never won my university’s media award.  That’s one I would have really appreciated, since it represents what I think is an important contribution to the world: the sharing of scholastic insight with the masses of taxpayers who truly deserve to be brought into the knowledge fold.

I think it was Einstein who suggested that a scientist doesn’t really understand a thing unless s/he can explain that thing to a layperson. Thus, the ability to do so, as well as efforts to do so, are by my reckoning actions of genuine impact worthy of visible celebration. To have been recognized as someone excelling in that role would mean something special to me.

As I get older, though, it all means so much less to me.  What matters more is avoiding squirrels while driving my scooter, eating enough vegetables, being nice to people, and making sure I spend as much time as possible with people I love.  The desire for recognition in pretty much anything seems so silly to me now.

But a magical thing happened this past week. I was given an award by the undergraduate students of the University of Ottawa’s Interdisciplinary School of Health Sciences.  I forget the actual title of the award, something like “Professor of Distinction” or something like that.


The name is irrelevant (to me). What’s important (to me) is that my students gave it to me.  They based it on what they value in an educator, and this makes me proud and pleased beyond all measure.

It’s not an official award from the University, my employer, but it means more than if it were. I struggle for an analogy.  Here’s one.  I gave a big keynote lecture at Trent University once. In thanks, they gave me a beautiful framed painting created by one of their local artists.  It hangs in my kitchen now. But right next to it is a drawing of me in crayon, made by my cousin’s little daughter.  If there was a fire, I would save the crayon drawing, not the framed painting.

As I explained to one of the students, I’ve been fortunate in my life to have received a few awards, but nothing like this.  I didn’t get the Booker Prize or the Media Award.  I did, though, win the Guyana Prize and a few other literary and journalism awards.  I even managed to win some athletic contests in my life, earning some medals and trophies in karate and squash competition. (Did I pay off the judges? No comment.)

But here’s the thing…. all of those other awards –including the ones that I won and the ones that I coveted but did not win– were for things that I did. The award given me by my students was for who I am.

As an older, and presumably wiser, person, I take great comfort in knowing that being is better than doing.  Being an educator is, to me, a spiritual activity: we learn about ourselves by teaching. We learn to be our best selves as we see our efforts manifest as better selves in our students. I would rather be rewarded and celebrated for who I am, rather than for what I have done.  Though, unavoidably, the latter must flow from the former.

I have a degree in teaching, earned 22 years ago. It took me a year, and I barely attended classes. It was a joke of a degree and a joke of a program.  Sorry, but that’s true.  I barely remember any of it.  I do remember one thing said by the fellow who taught the class on how to teach science.

He said (and I paraphrase), “You can call me by my first name, or you can call me Doctor. But what I prefer is that you call me Professor, because that’s the title of a teacher, and that’s what I’m most proud of.”

At the time, I thought it was a queer thing to say.  But I get it now. I bloody love this award. My karate medals, academic degrees, and even my Guyana Prize are hidden away somewhere in my parents’ house.  But this award from my students sits polished in my office, there for me to see in those weak moments when I might question why I took this path.

Having breakfast with my award.
Having breakfast with my award.