The “U” Rock Tradition

Cobie, in his old-soul, understated-fashion, raised his hand.

“I’d like to say something,” he announced. He had thick curly hair and the gaze of Julio Aparcio. He turned his matador eyes to his hall mates.

“I think we all need to give Chris a hand for laying down the law on some European kids at breakfast.” He started clapping. A quick “Yeah!” sounded, followed by hearty applause. Until that moment, sitting amongst my 13 charges for this session, a circle of cheering 13- to 15-year-olds, I did not realize how badly I wanted the recognition.

I was 24-years-old. I had seen the world, jumped out of a plane, bungee jumped, moved from one American coast to the other with an idyllic dream and little else. I achieved many of the things liked-minded men set out to do, and it mattered very little to me if these students hated me, admired me, or were completely indifferent.

But to say right then – my butt sore from dorm-style, barely-there carpeting and olfactory senses offended by this gaggle of unshowered teenagers – to say their looks of admiration didn’t leave warm and fuzzies, would be a lie. It was my reward for standing up to half-a-dozen European language students who tried butting ahead of my meeker students at the breakfast line, and I welcomed it.

Just like that I was an addict, hooked after my first taste. I knew I’d do anything to keep that respect. I knew I never wanted to let them down.

The event brought to mind the tradition of the “U Rock.” At the start of the daily RA staff meetings at the Center for Talented Youth in Los Angeles, one staff member presents the U Rock to another staff member. The rock appears as follows: a rock, about the size of a grapefruit. With a “U” painted on one face, in green. It is awarded to someone who displays extraordinary action the day previous, or who deserves recognition for their devotion in their roles as RA’s. The next day, the current wielder of the U Rock recognizes a new RA, and the rock makes its way around the staff.

By second session, the “U Rule” is introduced, which follows the same guidelines. It appears as follows: a wooden ruler. Scribed hastily on the back, in a blue Bic pen: “U rule.”

When the U Rock is first introduced, considerable thought is usually put into who its newest heir will be. The newest member of the club should prominently stand out from the rest of the plebes, the Balto of the pack, so to speak. Perhaps they dealt with a particularly unruly student in a constructive way. Or their Daily Activity from the day previous was extremely creative, executed with razor precision. Whatever the reason, the point is, there was meaning in the U Rock. You felt pride, even if it was just a twinge or a tickle. It felt good to be recognized, and consciously or unconsciously, it reinforced the behavior that earned you the recognition in the first place.

No one admits as much, of course (and as long as the tradition of the U Rock continues, it’s doubtful anyone will.) After all, the U Rock really is nothing more than a pat on the head, albeit, a heavy handed pat, that you have to schlep four flights of stairs to the meeting room the next day.

By the time the U Rule got introduced to the game, however, the U Rock had lost its momentum, a stalled car at the bottom of a trough. There were several reasons for this:

  1. The Introduction of the U Rule – with two mementos recognizing good behavior, the value was reduced by half. It was the first law of economics: supply up, demand down.
  2. Lowering of the Standard – the bar previously set for the U Rock was dramatically lowered, for a variety of reasons: tiredness in the staff, laziness in reflecting on who really deserved the recognition, or the desire to recognize friends over the deserving. E.g., “I want to give it to Stacy, for taking care of my hall while I was at weekend duty,” (a duty everyone performs, and required by the job) or “I want to give this to James, because he’s a good friend.”
  3. “Who hasn’t gotten it yet?” – the desire to give the U Rock to a member of the staff not because they earned it, but because they haven’t received it yet, pervades the tradition every year. This is likely the guiltiest culprit behind nerfing the value of the U Rock.

The U Rock becomes worthless in the face of these culminated reasons. Its intended effect – to recognize good behavior, to reinforce the behavior, and to inspire others to follow suit – is null. What started out as a subtle yet powerful reward starts tip-toeing along the “everyone’s a winner, everyone get a medal” line, a perpetuation of the sort of emotional coddling that leaves young adults unprepared for the challenges yet to come.

It begs the question: does the U Rock serve its function? Is it still a worthy tradition to uphold at CTY LOS when its value is slowly but inevitably reduced to nil?

Before Cobie raised his hand, I thought not. Since then, I’ve realized this: if the U Rock only sincerely recognized one person in six weeks of CTY, it’d be worth it. If it acknowledged one stellar act of courage or kindness in six weeks that otherwise would have gone unnoticed, then the practice should carry on. Qualities like courage and kindness aren’t necessarily inherent – they can be encouraged and cultivated, and genuine respect is a powerful agent for this growth. It sets the stage for that next act of courage or kindness, when it’s more difficult, when the stakes are higher. For the sake of building this foundation in even one individual’s life, yes, more than ever, the U Rock is a tradition worth upholding.

Photo Credit: all2gethernow

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