Chiang Mung

Back in 1994 when I was in Form 4 at Queen’s College, I thought of “outstanding” as an upgrade from “excellent”. It was two levels above “very good”. Along the well-defined hierarchy of objective assessment, the status of “outstanding” was like a beacon on top of the mountain. A terminal honor of A+ bestowed only to a tiny fraction of the crowd.

Yet the word “outstanding” is just an adjective. As we move on in life and better appreciate, the subject it describes is what prescribes its meaning and defines the scale. An outstanding singer doesn’t have to dance well, while an outstanding chef probably can’t fix my cell phone. The scale of comparison is also quantified through the specific profession or tasks, through that noun sitting right after “outstanding”. Count “student” as a profession, and an outstanding student might be one with a capability of learning and service in the top several percentiles. Verifying such capability and evaluating the statistics are never easy, misleading at times and noisy at best. More importantly, this designation has little, if any, bearing on whether the honoree will be outstanding in other capacities.

But the Hong Kong Outstanding Students Award covers a broader scope in the minds of many people throughout the past quarter of a century. It somewhat resembles an award of Outstanding Person. That, to me, is the category of “Outstanding X” that is most meaningful and trickiest to assess. Unlike those of a profession with clearly defined responsibilities, the core qualities of a human being entail too many dimensions and colors. Yet you’d know it when you see it. Gao Yaojie is a retired physician in China and an everyday grandma who almost single-handedly unveiled the dismal state of AIDS patients in Henan province since the 1990s. She resisted the enormous pressure from piles of government threat and harassment, fought a lonely and dangerous battle year in and year out, and cast the shadow of her life much farther than her own figure. Gao bears the burden of telling simple truths in a regime of lies. That is outstanding. It is outstanding to blaze new trails where all the paths are blocked. It is outstanding to persevere when the challenges outsize your resources. It is outstanding to pursue dreams of light despite the darkness of reality.

The word “outstanding” also carries a sense of prestige: supposedly only a small percentage of a given population may be described by this superlative. When I review applications to the graduate school at Princeton University, I often see some of the applicant’s references tickingoff the column of “outstanding: top 1-2% of all undergraduate students in my university”. You’re compared against some sample population, and you’re ranked. But the yardstick of “outstanding” must also be drawn with respect to one’s own condition. It’s not a zero-sum game: we all could be outstanding, and none might be. In this sense, the Most Improved Students Awards, initiated and run also by Auntie Doreen, is often given to candidates worthy of the adjective “outstanding” too. Those who found themselves in underprivileged situations, and not by their own faults, are every bit just as outstanding as those overachievers who started off with tremendous resources sitting on their laps. What matters here is not how high you’ve reached, but how far you’ve climbed. In Hong Kong’s secondary education system, the glory of HKCE letter grades shine on those 10A students each summer. I’ve seen many who are more outstanding in their HKCE grades despite fewer As on their transcripts. They were the new immigrants assigned to a band-5 school. They were the kids crowded into a tiny, noisy apartment with no desk of their own. They were the handicapped teenagers struggling each day in ways I could barely imagine. It can be practically difficult to put a number on each of these individuals’ efforts, but I suspect quite a few of them qualify for the title of “outstanding HKCE student”.

“Outstanding” i s often a word narrowly interpreted. It should also describe the process, not just the outcome. To be outstanding is to keep chasing after a moving target, flashing in the far distance, a mission never accomplished and a goal that keeps inspiring. It is then a real challenge to remain outstanding over time. Think of a bank account where credits are stored and spent. A monthly statement showing an “outstanding” level of credits in January can readily turn into a deficit warning by February. We all need to keep replenishing this account that measures just how outstanding we are in each day.

“Outstanding” has been a word overused. In college, we call this “grade inflation”: professors handing out “A”s like candies in a parade. The scale is shrunken so that the pinnacle is reachable by many more. The peer group used for comparison reference is downsized so that the “better” becomes the “best”. This might be a minor syndrome of the modern linguistic disease where words of the grandiose pepper our everyday sentences. As a faculty recommending my Ph.D. students for faculty jobs, I take my share of blame in throwing down a little too many “outstanding”, “superb”, and “brilliant” on the letter-headed paper. Probably it would have been more fitting to use “excellent” or “very good” at most places. It certainly would help if everyone scales down the implications of these superlatives in their own minds. And if we all keep overusing and then quietly rescaling the word, we will soon need to invent an even stronger word to tell those truly outstanding from the rest.

“Outstanding” may become a word abused. A worthy and helpful recognition, it may also send the wrong message to the audience: “what you see on stage now is a role model born under the aurora of this label”. Worse still, it runs the risk of confusing the recipient: “I am now somehow different, better, in fact, one of the best, because of this label of 11 letters”. Like many awards, the Outstanding Students Award serves as the best catalyst for OSARs’ future, as a spoonful of calorie-free sweetener, when we don’t think of it too seriously.