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Penkava: Fanfare for the common student

I grew up at a time when it was OK to be average. It was OK to get C’s on our report cards. In fact, in my case, even a D in math was a matter of parental rejoicing.

My averageness extended into sports as well. I was one of the “Pine Brothers”… second-stringers who sat on the pine bench cheering on the first-stringers. And when it came time for school assembly performances, I was always the shortest boy strategically placed in the last row of the chorus behind the school’s tallest girl. I didn’t mind that because I couldn’t remember all the words to “Santa Lucia” anyway.

So I got used to being average. As hard as I studied, I couldn’t make the honor roll. As hard as I practiced throwing the football, I still was a benchwarmer. And as hard as I dreamed, I couldn’t find a beautiful cheerleader to fall in love with me.

Thus I navigated my way through my early years in the center lane, halfway between great and not so great. But there was a sense of peace and security in my averageness, for a gracious fairness had placed me square in the middle of life, which to me wasn’t such a bad place to be at all.

When it came time for the high school graduation commencement ceremony, I donned my cap and gown and sat and listened to the two smartest kids in the class talk about being the best and touching the future and leaving a legacy. Inspiring thoughts from well-deserving speakers, but quite a daunting assignment for your average math-challenged cheerleaderless benchwarmer.

As I sat there with no scholarship and no money and no job, I wished there was someone on the commencement program who would tell me that it was OK to be just average. I longed to hear that being extraordinary was not a prerequisite to happiness. I needed to know that with hard work and dedication and passion, even those of us living in the middle of the bell curve could indeed live happily ever after. But suddenly I was throwing my ordinary cap in the air, secretly hoping to pick up an extraordinary one to wear as I passed through the doorway of the threshold of tomorrow.

Fortunately for me, the gracious fairness of ordinariness that got me through my youth traveled with me through the rest of my life. Moments of unabashed overachievement (marrying the girl of my dreams) were offset by periods of historic stupidity (trying to play ice hockey into my 60s), thus keeping me hovering consistently in my contented averageness, ordinary but happy.

But I am worried about the current crop of average kids. Today we live in a world that is frenetically captivated with the concept of being the best. Failure is the new Average. And many of our graduating youth now find themselves standing at the corner of Greatness or Nothing, with few options to be ordinary.

That’s why our kids need to hear that it’s OK to be average. I know what you’re thinking: they shouldn’t settle for mediocrity. I agree. But all too often there’s a great difference between doing our best and being the best, and the sooner our children learn to fill that gap with self-respect and satisfaction, the happier they will be.

So to all those average kids out there who are graduating, congratulations! You will go on to discover the reoccurring magic of being ordinary, for our lives are not defined by fragmented great moments, but by scores of perfectly ordinary ones. You will live a life of unhistoric acts that fulfill and gratify rather than remarkable deeds that exalt and acclaim, for you have seen that appreciation, respect and love linger far longer than applause.

So, go off through that threshold to the future, you average, ordinary person. And don’t bother looking for that extraordinary cap someone else threw into the sky … yours looks just fine on you.

• Michael Penkava is a retired teacher who taught for 35 years at West Elementary School in Crystal Lake. He congratulates all the graduates and hopes none will ever be intimidated by the fear of being average. He can be reached at

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