Gallery of art and thoughts

The cartoons and contemplations of a twentysomething copy editor.

Wednesday, June 15, 2005

Ave atque vale

Hail and farewell to valedictorians -- at least at some high schools, which, according to the New Yorker, are phasing out the honor because of the supercompetitive struggle by some students to gain it. This includes lawsuits. On the other hand, a number of schools are naming multiple valedictorians to satisfy every qualified candidate and avert any anger.

I wasn't valedictorian or salutatorian at Malden Catholic High School (Class of 1996), and my grades were never high enough to challenge. (Math and science were the main reasons; I was fifth or sixth, if you're wondering.)

For those of us who will never be a (fictional) Tracy Flick or a (real-life) Blair Hornstine, there is some hope. A 1995 study of 81 valedictorians from Illinois reveals that "few of the valedictorians seem destined for intellectual eminence or for creative work outside of familiar career paths." Why? "Valedictorians ... conformed to the expectations of school and carefully chose careers that were likely to be socially and financially secure," whereas, professor Karen Arnold writes, "Exceptional adult achievers often recall formal schooling as a disliked distraction." It's an interesting idea: are today's Michelangelos and Mozarts unfit for the get-good-grades philosophy we encourage in high school?

And it doesn't sound like any of the valedictorians interviewed for author Margaret Talbot's article care more for the subjects they studied than for the award they "deserve" for studying. One simply sounds spoiled: "Every time I sat down (at graduation), I had to get up again to get an award. I had so many plaques I literally couldn’t carry them off the stage, and I’m, like, ‘Oh, yeah, right, I’m not valedictorian?’” So that's the point of studying hard? Not because you care deeply about a subject, but so other people will know you studied hard? Perhaps Amory Blaine, protagonist of F. Scott Fitzgerald's "This Side of Paradise," could wise up these whippersnappers with a reflection on college in the 1910s that's just as apt for high school in the 2000s: "What little boys they had been, working for blue ribbons."

Unrelated note: What happens when a valedictorian actually has something interesting to say? And what happens when a valedictorian sues not for grade-point reasons, but for free-speech ones? Click here.


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