Memories from the past: Class Ugly Man contest

Memories from the past: Class Ugly Man contest

Yesterday’s news included an interesting story from Kenosha, Wisconsin, a mid-size city in the southeast corner of the state. One of the county high schools – Tremper High – had a rather offensive contest last fall. It took some time to make it into the news cycle, but the story is somewhat surprising, especially in light of today’s rather high expectations of social sensitivity.

It seems the cheerleaders had an awards ceremony that included kudos to several girls for having particularly attractive physical features. I choose to refrain from further comment as I prefer to remain on the gentlemanly side of the issue, but I admit to finding the story more than surprising.

Typical but unknown cheerleaders (photo by Jupiter Images: Chicago Tribune)

Parents and others in the school district also took offense and immediately called on the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) for assistance in potentially filing a lawsuit against the school for the highly inappropriate comments and for “enabling sexual harassment.”

The news story reminded me – though for different reasons – of an incident from my own high school days. In the fall of 1972, my family lived in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan and I attended Gwinn High School (freshman year). The school district was a mix of local families and children/teens who lived on nearby K. I. Sawyer Air Force Base.

My school decided to have a contest to build school spirit and to support an organization dedicated to some social cause. Each class (73, 74, 75, & 76) had to select from their ranks – by secret ballot – a Class Ugly Man to serve as a mascot for the fundraiser. Yes, that’s right – a vote to determine the ugliest man in each class. I guess girls weren’t allowed to be included in the vote… probably (and correctly) hesitant to hurt the feelings of a young lady!

The guy who ‘won’ on behalf of the senior class was named Shaw and he was a lineman on the football team. Although he might not have been regarded as one of the handsomest of young men, he was fairly popular and well-respected among his classmates.

I do not recall the ones who gained the distinction from the sophomore or junior classes. However, I do remember the unfortunate young man from my class. And there was absolutely nothing honorable or humorous about the selection.

Tim was was beset with difficulties. At some point in his young life, he had suffered a stroke. He limped badly and his arm hung loosely at his side. He had a speech impediment and he was challenged academically. He was unable to participate in gym class or many of the projects that required power tools in wood shop. He could not groom himself and his clothes were unkempt. He had very few friends and though he seemed to go through his daily routine with patience and grace, I wonder… What were his thoughts? What was his true emotional state?

So Tim was elected as the Freshman Class Ugly Man and for the next week, he was subjected to social degradation, the likes of which I have not seen since that time, in any setting.

Each class had a committee of fellow students – those who were the true popular kids in their class – who had the thoroughly enjoyable project of creatively dressing their Man in the outfit of their choice. Tim was required to wear some silly get-up, enhancing his ‘status’ as our Class Ugly Man. All during the next week, he had to wear his specially selected garb, and carry a coffee can everywhere he went, all the while begging for pocket change to go toward the funding of our school’s selected social endeavor.

I was uncomfortable at the time, and even more so today, as I think about what Tim, our Class Ugly Man was forced to endure for an entire week, just to raise a few bucks for charity. Although I had no part in the project, I am frankly ashamed of what my high school did to Tim those many years ago.

The Gwinn High School Modeltowners: We didn’t always act like it

We live in a fallen, broken world, where even today, more than 46 years later, we think it’s OK to make sport of, to mock and ridicule others, and that’s the adults among us. Sometimes we wonder why children do these things, but children and teens learn from the example of their parents, whether for good or for ill. After all, the Class Ugly Man contest was designed and organized by adults who worked at a high school.

Whether it’s a gentle-hearted boy with disabilities in the early 70s or a team of popular girls enjoying a sport today, we must be thoughtful and careful about how we treat impressionable young people. Let’s set a higher standard of social grace and interaction, one that our own children and teens will learn to emulate, thereby helping our society rise to greater levels of acceptance and understanding.

© Jeffery J. Michaels / Plain English Publications 2019
(Quotations allowed with attribution to this blog)

Wisconsin high school cheerleaders received awards for biggest breasts, butt at banquet. Ryan Gaydos and Frank Miles. February 20, 2019.

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