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Saturday, May 19, 2012

Is the High School Valedictorian Really a Valedictorian?

The etymology of the word valedictorian begs a question. The word comes from the past participle stem of the Latin word valedicere meaning "bid farewell," and from vale, the imperative of valere meaning "be strong, be well, be worth, have power, or be able" (see valiant) + dicere "to speak, tell, or say" (see diction).

The definition of valedictorian most common to education in American high schools involves the top GPA (grade point average). In most schools, a valedictorian is a student, usually the one ranking highest academically in a school graduating class, who delivers the valedictory, or farewell address at the commencement exercises.

So, most schools rank students purely by GPA, but how this key measurement is determined is an open question. Some schools give students bonus points for taking harder classes – potentially giving an advantage to students who enroll in AP and other advanced classes.

Not all schools, especially smaller districts, weight harder classes with GPA bonus points. Often the differences separating the top student from the nearest competitors are small, and sometimes there are accusations that the winner took advantage of the rules in a way that seemed unfair, such as taking easy courses to get additional credits.The awarding of the valedictorian honor has been the subject of heated controversy.

Some schools have dropped the honor or changed the rules to allow multiple recipients. Due to the increased competition for acceptance at elite colleges, high schools are filled with more dedicated students than ever. As a result of increasing pressures, more high schools are choosing multiple valedictorians in order to highlight the accomplishments and dedication of multiple students.

At some schools, in fact, over dozens of students qualify for the honor. At Stratford High School near Houston, 30 students were named valedictorian for the class of 2010. Does this large number diminish the accomplishment of one superior student?
Also, some schools recognize multiple valedictorians to reduce the pressure and competition among students. The new trend has been criticized, but also welcomed by high-performing students who benefit from the recognition.

So, what about the question concerning the etymology of valedictorian? If schools accept the Latin definition, the valedictorian is the student who delivers the inspirational and persuasive farewell statement at the graduation ceremony as the graduates prepare to disperse and to begin the next phase of their lives. The various aims of this address are to inspire the graduates and to thank individuals responsible for their successes while reflecting on youthful frivolity and the accomplishments of the class.

To me, most valedictory addresses are full of platitudes relating to lofty ideals of achievement and good conduct. The speeches are just the type of tidy "look back at the past and look forward to the future" fare one would expect from the class scholar. There is nothing wrong with this content -- it is invariably reflective and hopeful. But, delivered by the GPA King or Queen, it is usually laughingly predictable and boring.

Almost like a sermon, the valedictory farewell begs the classmates to focus on the "straight and narrow" as they improve their individual lives, and, it begs them, in some nebulous sense, to continue to contribute to the success of the now-defunct high school class. Are we just asking for bullshit here?

The address usually contains the following:

(a)  Recollections of the past occasions and events of the class:  the fun / the tears – the trials / and the tribulations,

(b)  Reminders of the beginning of the next most important phase of the classmates' new lives outside of school,

(c)  Assumptions of class attainments that will help in the future: the skills to learn; the aptitude to succeed; and the abilities and creativity to make a difference, to work to assist in solving of the problems that face society.

I understand that the class ranking and GPA is important for college admissions, and I fully agree that graduates should receive meaningful recognition for receiving superior high school grades; however, if the valedictorian is delivering the meaningful farewell, might not a student leader with exemplary service and outstanding overall participation in everything "high school" be the best choice to deliver the valedictory address?

More importantly, shouldn't the students, themselves, choose the classmate most suited to deliver this meaningful address? I understand the risks of allowing a popular student to speak at graduation, an event attended by a large crowd of friends and relatives eager to see Johnny or Susie grasp a diploma, a paper that signifies academic achievement. This speaker may view the highest academics as the only sign of success. And, this speaker may share a different view with the audience -- a view unique to his or her abilities to become a successful class leader.

In truth, isn't the class most indebted to the student most valuable to the cohesion and growth of the unit? Those with top grades are not necessarily the people who best represent the interests of most graduating seniors. Perhaps this student is one who has overcome many difficult obstacles to reach impressive goals, or perhaps this student inspires the class with a well-rounded, meaningful life both in school and in the community. In a word, this student may be most respected.

So, what about the student who has continually contributed time and varied talents to the best "school days of the graduating class"? This student didn't snipe at others to get higher grades, didn't necessarily believe that grades were the sole measure of success, and didn't place individual achievement over more important people projects. Instead, this student did masterfully lend to the cohesion of the class by sharing his or her individual talents, did communicate successfully with all the cliques and segments of the group, and did show undying attention to the varied needs of others. This respected student exhibited outstanding maturity. This student is the heart of the class.

To me, this student possesses innumerable qualities that foster success, and he or she has used these tools best to strengthen the fabric of the class. It has been my experience to find that this team player usually maintains a GPA just a tad below perfection, receiving an occasion "B" grade due to tremendous involvement in school and community functions while juggling a schedule that would debilitate most people with perfect GPAs.

High school grades continue to be the most reliable measure of success in college. I think grades are very, very important to a student. Still, I think we must remember that a grade is a mark of achievement on paper, often somewhat subjective, that can lead students, parents, teachers, and administrators to believe those with the highest GPAs are spotless, golden individuals assured of future success. Most of them are going to be successful -- I believe this after decades of teaching experience.

But, high grades are not the only measure of a student's future success, nor should they be. I have seen many "C" senior students working to their potential that I would wager are "late bloomers" just coming into their own maturity as it relates to achievement. They are very successful in college, in their careers, and in their lives.

I always told my classes, "I will respect you even more if you weren't "born with a silver spoon" or "graced with a phenomenal brain" or "counseled by a loving family" but instead learn to OVERCOME PROBLEMS, FIND YOUR STRENGTHS, and MAKE YOUR OWN WAY TO ACHIEVE SUCCESS and GOODNESS.

I guess I'm Old School today -- very old, old school -- Latin, in fact. The original meaning of valedictorian would have schools look at other criteria than just GPA to bestow this honor. That person would be recognized and then would give a meaningful message at commencement.

The question I've been getting to and taking far too long to ask is this:

Shouldn't the valedictorian,
the person who delivers the valedictory,
or farewell address,
at the commencement exercises,
be the student who is
the most valuable person
to the graduating class? 

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