I hold the black square cap, tassel swaying every time I shift my weight. Not impatient, though to a casual observer, a long line of black-and-turquoise-robed graduates waiting for their ceremony to begin would be a veritable pool of impatience. It’s been three years, hasn’t it? You’ve waited for this moment since you started, right? Yet, no, aforesaid observer is doing me a disservice if they think I am impatient. Because in this moment? I am perfectly content to wait as long as they can possibly give me. I soak in the Tauranga sunshine, texting Cori selfies of Michaela and me in our gowns, and laughing as I glance up at everything around me.

I don’t want to rush this moment.

I savour the accomplishment of the past three years, as much as I giggle at the folds on my sleeves.

This moment, this moment.

And then I hear my name amidst the small, loitering crowd.

“Kayla! Kayla!” I am snapped back to reality. Who’s calling my name? 

“Did you see?!” Anna’s waving the ceremony programme, a stone’s throw ahead, coming toward me.

I see a finger on my name, Kayla Elizabeth Norris, with two little words in parenthesis next to it, two little words that are only next a dozen names. Two little words, right there on the programme for hundreds of people to see.

With Distinction.

I’m a teacher’s kid. I learned to read because, when I wasn’t in preschool, I would sit in Mum’s English class. My favourite memories from first grade are writing and illustrating stories about hermit crabs and whales going on undersea treasure hunts, and my brothers going to war and then returning to drink hot chocolate. Throughout primary schooling, I had small class sizes, one-on-one attention, diverse teachers, and lots of love. This, combined with a family inheritance in education and a gift from God in language, produced a pretty good report card for as long as I can remember.

Yet I also took on something else, something less pleasant than an “Excellent!” or a “Wow, 103%!”.

That little something was called distance. 

Can you imagine for a moment, doing really well in something– and you bring it to a classmate, hoping to have a kindred spirit– and instead you are treated like an alien, a threat, or even a celebrity– so very different from the friend and peer you wanted to be. I mean, please, zoom out for a moment– what do you know you’re good at? It doesn’t have to have anything to do with your school experiences. Are you good at singing? Dancing? Talking to people? Making coffee? Please, please, put yourself in my shoes for a minute. Imagine the moment you most want a friend– when you are sharing your heart in that particular area– imagine that’s the moment that everyone shrinks away.


It’s a girl’s worst nightmare. Where some may fear failure (and I certainly have had my fair share of that), if I’m honest with myself, the thing I’ve feared the most in the grading scale is the severing of relationship.

I remember in third grade, tacking my teddy bear report on to the white cement bricks, so proud (bordering on obnoxious) of my 103%. I had been given extra credit, drawn neat pictures, overall really enjoyed the assignment. I remember one of my best friends getting a grade lower than me. Then, I would have said it was her creating distance wasn’t it? Wasn’t she grumpy about our grade difference? But no, if I am honest to myself now? As a nine year old, I felt extremely uncomfortable with being singled out so particularly, set above the people I loved.

Ten years later, I found myself with fellow primary education students in Diversity: Teaching the Unique Child, as we did a unit on gifted children. This time, I was in a blue brick wall classroom, listening intently to Marion tell a story of a girl good at English. After being a put in an extension class with like-minded students, this girl gushed, “I finally feel like I can speak my language!” As Marion quoted that, I was on the verge of tears. The feelings suppressed for so long– being misunderstood, unknown, and distanced– surfaced that day.

In that class, and many lectures afterward, I learned children with special needs, gifted needs, and all of the needs in between, have just that: needs. Every child needs to be supported and extended academically at whatever level they are at. Yet even more importantly, we learned every student needs to know they are loved, cared for, and that they belong.

All the rest is just relative numbers that humans attempt to master.

That’s a bit bold, Kayla, you might say. Or, If that’s the case, what’s the point of teaching academics? Mmm. Good point. I’m not going to answer that, that’s for another day. We can measure children’s capacity to learn by how quickly they pick up an academic concept (and if they don’t get algebraic equations in the week you want to teach them and they fail their test, well, too bad for them, eh?). Let’s not have grades, then! You obviously got hurt by getting good grades, so seems pointless, yeah? 

Oh, I miss the entire point if I point extended finger at “grades” as a whole. Yes, I think we can do assessment better, and oh my goodness yes I hate standardised tests, and the way black-and-white paper seems to be the only way we can measure how well diverse students learn. Yet why do we have grades? Is it to shoot down every person who ever had trouble reading? Is it to convince everyone in the middle-group that their worth is “average”? And finally, is it to segregate everyone who loved writing a little too much to be considered normal?

For all that is secret will eventually be brought into the open, and everything that is concealed will be brought to light and made known to all. 

-Luke 8:17 (NLT)

This verse kept tumbling into my head, inconveniently obnoxious, as I sat in the theatre-style seats of my university graduation ceremony. Try as I might, I couldn’t shake the pleasant feeling that the hours, the days, weeks, months, years of work were being recognised by others. I couldn’t ignore that I felt proud of what I had done, and was so thankful that people could now see. I guess a seed only enjoys being underground for so long, a lily only is content with being a tightly closed bud for a set amount of time…

And the Father’s heart for “grades” is not a measurement of our identity or worth, but instead something much more precious. He wants to honour our faithfulness to the end, in whatever He sets us to do. That can be a job, a DTS, high school homework or babysitting for your family. He loves to share about the people he loves and what they have got up to in seasons past. Some of those accomplishments are internationally recognised, such as a Bachelor of Education or an ability to write a good essay. And other, far less recognisable (and often, much more important) accomplishments? These will be measured by his soft, sweet touch in celebrations we can only dream of– far, far better than a 103%.

“Did you know?” Michaela asks me, after we see the programme, grinning wide despite grade difference. “I’m so proud of you.”

“I mean, I suspected, but no, I had no idea,” I say with a smile that been hidden for too long.

And it’s the first time in my life that I am okay with being the one who got good grades.

Why? The reason I was not impatient waiting to go into the ceremony, is much the same reason I was okay with getting “With Distinction” and people knowing about it. I was surrounded by friends. People who celebrated my work and general nerdy-ness, yet valued me far beyond my intellectual abilities. And the sooner I entered and exited that ceremony, the sooner we dispersed into our various parts of the world– oh, I just wanted to slow down.

Are the trophies of university my A-marked essays? Are my treasures of BTI the Excellent-marked Practicums? Is the greatest honour of my past three years on a piece of paper? Not in the slightest. Far from it. Yes, I am proud of what I have learned here in New Zealand, and proud of what those “A”s, “Excellence”s, and transcripts reveal.

But nothing compares to the distinction
of being called friend by people who–
though we were all very different–
they threw distance to the wind,
and made a home for me in their hearts.

It’s as my aunt neatly scripted on the front of my graduation card:

“A journey is best measured in friends rather than miles.”

And what a wonderful journey it’s been.

Photos: BTI Graduation, downtown Tauranga, NZ; May 2015. Photos by myself, Jonathan Reid, Michaela Rose, and Bruce Wills. Thank you to everyone who came down on the day and made it possible.