For decades, nervous young valedictorians have been standing at graduation exercises, knees knocking, proclaiming, “This not an end, but a beginning,” as though that line had never been used before and was therefore terribly profound. It was, however, profound to those in the graduating class who were now leaving behind their cocoon — the familiarity and security of high school — and going out into the real world. A world that wasn’t always friendly, familiar, or fair; a world where their best friend wouldn’t always be there to have lunch with them, and they wouldn’t always be praised for each success achieved. But nevertheless, the words of the valedictorian and salutatorian were always important to the gathering of friends, family, teachers, and students because here were the best and brightest of them all, the ones they had been with since elementary school, the ones who had studied the hardest, competed academically every day, and ultimately rose to the top of the class. Now, Daniel Kelley wants to change all that.
Daniel Kelley is principal of Smithfield High School in northern Rhode Island, and recently made headlines because he has crafted a plan which would eliminate valedictorian and salutatorian honors. Kelley’s rationale is that “by revising the current system, we can recognize more students, emphasize growth, and decrease the level of unhealthy academic competition.”
Since when is academic competition unhealthy? Back in the dark ages when many of us went to school, we were taught to strive for excellence, to work hard to succeed. Back then we didn’t give every competitor a prize. The real prize was waiting only for those who rose to the top.
College admissions departments have readily acknowledged that although many things are taken into consideration, in most cases they care more about grades, especially grades earned when taking challenging courses, i.e. Advanced Placement. The overall GPA and class rank generally take a back seat to these grades. For the high schools who still value valedictorians and salutatorians, the barometer for coming in at number one/two is sustained hard work ... so what’s wrong with that?
Once again I stand on my soapbox decrying the notion of “everybody wins a prize,” or “We don’t want to make others feel bad because we’re singling out one or two.” Why the hell not? It’s that number one and number two student who grasped early on what consistency meant. It’s that number one/number two who learned the rewards of self-discipline and applied it to a habit of sustained hard work. For us to think otherwise is a disservice to these students and to the entire educational system.
The tradition of the valedictorian actually harkens back to colonial times, 1772 to be exact, at the College of William and Mary, when the governor of Virginia put up a gold medal as the prize awarded to the student most skilled in Latin written composition and oratory. The word valedictorian is derived from the Latin “validicere,” which means “to say goodbye.” Salutatorian has the same derivation as “salutation,” and that’s why the student who is second in the class gives the “welcome” speech at graduation.
Students need barometers. They need report cards to let them know where they’re succeeding and where they’re failing. “Failure” is not a dirty word, it’s a temporary condition that can be altered through the implementation of hard work and reinforcement, not coddling. Once these students graduate, whether they’re number one or number three-hundred-and-one in the class, they will be turned out into a cold, hard world where they must quickly learn how to do a job and do it well in order to succeed. In the real world, everybody doesn’t get a prize, and employers do not regularly tiptoe around feelings to extrude the kind of job performance they need.
When a young person encounters obstacles, it is not up to us to remove them for that student, but to teach them to overcome them and continue on a path to success. Obstacles are just part of the game, in school and in life. Students truly win by receiving the education they deserve provided by good curricula and good teachers. If we want them to win at life, we have to prepare them to also lose at life, and that preparation should begin early in the home as well as at school.
So, here’s to the classes of 2019 ... onward!
Rona Mann has been a freelance writer for The Sun for 17 years, including her “In Their Shoes” features. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 401-539-7762.