Savannah Morgan: A change of perspective on the race to be valedictorian

Published 12:00 am Thursday, May 25, 2017

By Savannah Morgan 

At the Rowan-Salisbury Board of Education meeting Monday night, there was one topic that stood out above the rest. This topic generated the most community interest, with three residents coming to speak before the board. It produced the most discussion by board members, and it created a divide between nearly everyone in attendance.

The topic was the proposed policy change that would remove the naming of valedictorian and salutatorian from high school graduation ceremonies.

While listening to the plethora of comments on the proposition, a couple of things became clear. Those who had originally suggested the policy change, high school principals, were those who had seen the damage caused by the destructive competitiveness first-hand. Contrastingly, many of those contributing to the meeting’s discussion were merely offering opinions and outside observations.

As the discussion progressed, I found myself wishing the board could hear just one more perspective. Both groups, but particularly those in support of the policy, continually mentioned the excruciating closeness between the top two GPAs, as well as those who fell slightly short. Often, only a 10th of a point (or less) separates the “winners” from the “losers.” School board members cited quotes from many perspectives, but one angle that was not seen was that of the students who fell victim to the barely-there point difference.

I am now a student at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, but I graduated from West Rowan High School in 2015. Although the top-of-the-class rat race has had no impact, either positive or negative, on my life after high school, at the time it seemed like a very big deal. At the graduation ceremony, I was named salutatorian; however, I had been first in the class all the way up until the second quarter of spring semester. The difference between the GPA of valedictorian and my own was only four one-hundredths of a point — less than the precarious 10th of a point that the school board members kept citing. Of course, at the graduation ceremony I was still awarded a medal, I had already been accepted to UNC, and I had already received a full-ride academic scholarship. But that doesn’t mean it didn’t sting.

I’m sure it was worse for other students. The third, fourth, fifth and so on students were just as smart and as hard-working as both the valedictorian and myself, but they weren’t recognized at all. Perhaps the school didn’t offer AP biology, so rather than take AP chemistry, the student chose to sacrifice his GPA in favor of taking Honors Biology II, a class that would be of more benefit to him in the long run. But why should students have to make this choice? With the removal of the naming of valedictorian and salutatorian titles and the installation of the Latin honors system in its place, the pressure to choose between one’s GPA and one’s career would most likely be eliminated, or at least severely reduced.

Board member Travis Allen drew a comparison between the academic top of the class race and sports teams saying, “It’s not always the best team that wins the ballgame.” While that statement is very true, a problem arises when a pattern develops and the best team rarely wins or the best students are rarely recognized. That’s what is occurring.

There’s nothing wrong with being No. 1, despite the means — questionable or not — through which one arrives at being declared “the best,” but there is something wrong with neglecting to acknowledge the existence of a problem. And there is a problem when students are killing themselves for a two-minute recognition, only to fall painfully just short.

For some students, top of the class acts as a problematic, unattainable ideal — its only purpose is to remind them of what they cannot have or cannot accomplish. Ranking students’ academic success — or lack thereof — and emphasizing this ranking by declaring a valedictorian and salutatorian only serves to heighten this artificial hierarchy system and to heighten stress and anxiety. There is no surefire way to quantify intelligence, and there is no way to quantify a student’s mental health. Declaring a valedictorian and salutatorian is an attempt to quantify the unquantifiable at the expense of the students.

The board’s choice to add the Latin honors system in addition to the naming of valedictorian and salutatorian is most definitely a step forward, and for that I applaud its members. However, it’s like taking ibuprofen for pain, but ignoring the fact that your leg is broken — it is only a method of alleviating the pain, not a way to fix the problem.

Board member Jean Kennedy argued that honoring valedictorian and salutatorian is no longer serving its purpose — having students aim for success — but rather it is causing students to focus on the obtention of a title. Why have students racing each other to be valedictorian, when you could have a student racing just himself or herself to excel?

Stephen Page, a speaker from the community at the board meeting and a graduate of Salisbury High, mentioned honoring the top 3 percent and 5 percent. This a great solution, as this would push students to push themselves, but it wouldn’t force students to choose a class they hate over another class they love for a slight GPA boost. It would also ensure that more of the top students are recognized, rather than just the top two.

Having the top 3 percent and the top 5 percent recognized would also help to reduce the cutthroat competition to a healthier form of competition. There is no perfect answer to any complex issue, but this one is pretty close.