By the distinction’s nature, being named valedictorian – the top student in the graduating class – is rarely a shared experience.
But for the valedictorians of Fuquay-Varina and Leesville Road high schools, the shared experience goes beyond late nights studying, taking more AP classes than can be counted on two hands and admission offers from prestigious universities.
Anna Bennett, 17, Fuquay-Varina’s valedictorian, and Heather Crew, 18, Leesville Road’s top-ranked student, are first cousins. Since they realized becoming valedictorian was an attainable goal for both of them, they’ve had a partner in what can otherwise be a lonely distinction.
“I feel like we were really close when we were younger,” Crew said.
“But our families grew apart,” Bennett said.
Bennett’s mother and Crew’s father are brother and sister.
“We kind of used this as a way to get back to talking more,” Crew continued. “Since we both have cars now, mobility, the independence from our parents, we can drive and hang out. It was enough to restart talking.”
Both say their accomplishments haven’t brought their families much closer together – people are busy, and the drive from North Raleigh to Fuquay-Varina can be lengthy.
But Elizabeth Crew, Heather’s mother, said the daughters’ accomplishments were mentioned frequently at holidays, starting around their junior year.
“It was Christmas, and we brought up that Heather might be valedictorian,” Elizabeth Crew said. “It was almost kind of like a, ‘Oh, I’m glad you put it out there, because Anna might be too.’ At Christmas, Easter, summertime, we’d kind of delicately ask the question: Are y’all still in the running?”
That walking-on-eggshells feeling comes up often when talking about the honor with Bennett and Crew, who said they’ve both received special, but not always positive, attention from peers since they were announced as valedictorians. Their commencement ceremonies are this week.
“I feel like (Anna) was definitely one of the people I could go talk to to talk about the social ramifications of being valedictorian,” Crew said. “People are so mean. They really are. I’m not a popular person, so I’ve never been in the social spotlight of high school before. I don’t like it.”
The two also share a grandmother, a former high school English teacher.
“The word ‘pride’ kind of puts it mildly,” Elizabeth Crew said.
“The only common DNA is here,” added Robert Crew, Heather’s father. “I think Grandma’s the one who wants to take credit for that.”
As much as they share – both said AP Chemistry nearly derailed their bids for straight As – the cousins also show there’s more than one way to go about being number one.
Leesville Road High is in North Raleigh, an affluent area that Crew said creates an academic environment that’s “competitive, but not cutthroat.” Fuquay-Varina High, Bennett said, is perhaps less competitive and slightly smaller.
Bennett describes Crew as more outspoken than she is. Crew said her cousin is the “more socially intelligent and proper” of the pair.
Bennett plays flute and went to regionals all four years with Fuquay-Varina’s golf team. Crew, who describes herself as “5-foot-1 with no athletic ability,” started and grew her school’s Model UN club while working service and retail jobs.
Crew said her desire to be valedictorian snuck up on her in the second half of high school. Bennett’s began at the end of her freshman year, said her mother, Dottie Bennett.
“She was playing with band at graduation,” Dottie Bennett said. “She looked up at the stage and saw someone giving a speech, and she said, ‘Mom, that’s going to be me in three years.’ ”
Crew graduates from Leesville Wednesday, June 8, and will attend UNC-Chapel Hill as part of the school’s honors college. She said she plans to study economics or political science. Bennett, after her graduation Saturday, June 11, is headed to the University of Pennsylvania as a Ben Franklin Scholar to study nursing.
Robert Crew gives credit to the girls, who he said rose to the top of their classes without much prodding from him or his sister.
“Honestly, my parents just told me to do my best,” Anna Bennett said. “I think I pushed myself more than they did. If I had made a B or something, I don’t think they would have been sad.”
That isn’t to say they find the honor meaningless, though. The pair politely disagree with Wake County’s recent decision to phase out the honor and instead implement a Latin honors system of titles such as “cum laude.”
“I worked really hard, and I feel like hard work needs to be rewarded,” Anna Bennett said. “If they took it away, people would still work hard their junior year. But I know I would have taken it a lot easier senior year if we didn’t have it.”
Gargan: 919-460-2604; @hgargan