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Harvard alumnus weighs in on valedictorian selection process

While I find your prescriptions for graduation awards both reasonable

and perhaps, in some ways, favorable to the current system (“Time to

change who is honored come graduation,” July 19), I feel that they

are based on loose, even faulty, premises, which require further

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clarification.

First of all, it is clear from my experience that overachievers in

academics are rarely one-trick ponies. Your editorial seems to

suggest that it is book worms and nerds who covet the top honors and,

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thus, spend all of their time doing school work. In isolated cases

this might be true, but it’s much more common for high-achieving

students to relieve stress from academics, and express themselves in

equal measure outside of the classroom. (For example, I know a

Burbank High School valedictorian who was voted “Most Athletic” in

his graduating class.) Besides, if today’s valedictorians and

salutatorians really were so single-minded then we should reward them

for it. Heaven knows they probably haven’t been rewarded tangibly

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during high school -- i.e. no social life, no popularity, etc. In

this day and age, when young people often shun the rigors of

education, we should reward those who sacrifice for it.

There has always been competition for this honor. While new -- and

admittedly alarming -- tactics are currently in vogue, including

stacking up on AP and honors classes (by the way, this isn’t nearly

as new as you might think), the ferocity of the battle is not

appreciably greater. Burbank is no stranger to this controversy. I’ve

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been hearing these same things since I was old enough to care about

who wins, which was younger than you might think. While a more

egalitarian interpretation would perhaps quell the competition, it

would also devalue the distinction. A value judgment that must be

made here: reward the few or the many? Either way, the criteria

should be clearly defined, the entire process transparent. In the

end, I’d be willing to bet the farm that the top students know

everybody’s GPA anyways.

I’m all for spreading the kudos around -- in awards and graduation

speeches. However, we must be clear about the meaning of

valedictorian. Traditionally it has gone to the student with the

highest grades. And, by definition, this student speaks at

commencement (giving, of course, the valedictory address). As far as

I know, Burbank High School has always had a committee select

speakers for graduation from among the general student body.

Valedictorian and salutatorian are invited to speak as well, but

because they are not announced until that moment, it’s understandable

that the speeches given might be lackluster. (In some cases, as in

1996, the valedictorian had been inadvertently denied this privilege,

but that’s a completely different story.) Why not announce the award

recipients prior to the graduation ceremony, like they do at

Burroughs? But if we call it valedictorian, its bearer should speak.

My main problem with the egalitarian argument is that the

valedictorian was never designed to be for everyone -- including all

those who “suffer” because they’re busy doing other things. These are

choices that must be made in high school between different goods. But

they are just that: individual choices. To argue that some monumental

change should be made misses the point by taking it too seriously.

These kids will survive, valedictorian or not. The important thing is

that they understand what they want, and their motivations -- not

now, but in time. High school should never be this serious, and it’s

usually the parents, not the kids, who make it this way. For now we

can excuse the teenager who drops out of a summer typing class

because even an A worth 4.0 will bring down his GPA (my brother, 1994

BHS co-valedictorian), or fills his senior year with seven AP classes

to bolster it (me, 1996 BHS co-valedictorian). (On a side note, I

stayed with the typing class and worried my entire high school career

if it would weaken my chances of being valedictorian. In the end it

did not, and to this day I’m a much faster typist than my brother!) I

doubt that changes in the award system will do much to dissuade

overachievers from their course, no pun intended.

It’s not like the graduated, adult world is devoid of those who

manipulate the value of their perceived merit. (I wonder where the

kids get this from?) Eventually you learn the perils of such

perspective, and you grow out of it on your own. But high school

should be a time for growing into yourself. Most problems can be

fixed with earnestness later.

MATTHEW W. BAKER

BHS Class of 1996

Harvard University

Class of 2003


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