Barry Saunders

Saunders: I’m more Vienna sausage than valedictorian

Group photo of the 29 Wake County students who were recognized as Class of 2016 valedictorians by their high schools.
Group photo of the 29 Wake County students who were recognized as Class of 2016 valedictorians by their high schools. Cecil Coates

People who meet me are always surprised by two things – that I’m waaaay more handsome in person than the picture with this column would lead you to believe (think Denzel with an extra 10 pounds) and that I was an outstanding high school scholar.

That’s right. When Richmond Senior High School selected its valedictorian, there were only two – or 560 – graduating seniors ranked ahead of me.

And that, as the poet Robert Frost wrote, has made all the difference. That snub has allowed me to attribute every failure, every shortcoming since high school to the fact that I got cheated out of being valedictorian. Darn you, Mr. Weatherly and the other 559 grads.

In coming years, students graduating from Wake County high schools will no longer have to worry about being denied individual recognition. Citing the pressure of competition and lack of comity inspired by students striving to be top cat in their class, the Wake County school board is abolishing the practice of naming valedictorians and salutatorians. The board will instead implement a new system that recognizes high-achieving seniors with Latin titles such as cum laude.

Critics, predictably, complain that the new system is an example of political correctness – whatever the hell that is – run amok, an effort to ensure that every grad gets recognized equally. Noted scholar Rush Limbaugh said it is an effort to “punish achievement. ... The elimination of competition is the objective.”

Bull, Rush.

Someone with an actual brain, board chairman Tom Benton, explained in a news story last week, “We have heard from many, many schools that the competition has become very unhealthy. Students were not collaborating with each other the way that we would like them to. Their choice of courses was being guided by their GPA and not their future education plans.”

Thomas Griffin, director of undergraduate admissions at N.C. State University, told me the same thing last month.

“There are parents and students who will worry more about GPA and class rank,” Griffin said. What admissions directors seek is more nuanced.

“We’re much more interested,” he said, “in students being students in high school” and taking courses that interest them.

Benton said the no-valedictorian, no-salutatorian system will have a salutary effect on students’ psyches by allowing them to take the courses they want, not just the ones that’ll boost their class rank.

For those of you such as – obviously – Limbaugh and I who never got close enough to becoming one to know a valedictorian from a Vienna sausage:

▪ a valedictorian is the graduating senior with the highest grade point average who likely gets to wear a sash and make a commencement speech to which no one is paying attention because everyone’s too busy wondering where the best graduation party will be after they doff those gowns and mortarboards.

▪ A salutatorian is the graduating senior with the second-highest grade point average who likely gets to wear a sash, make a speech to which no one is listening and who will forever be tormented by the regret that the day mom made them stay home from school merely because of double pneumonia cost them the extra point that would’ve made them valedictorian.

▪ A Vienna sausage is a delicately seasoned processed pork product.

Whether anyone paid attention or not, Melody Armstead looked forward to giving her commencement speech last week. She was co-valedictorian at the Wake STEM Early College High School. Asked what she thinks of the board’s decision to abolish the two ranks, Armstead said, “I would’ve been disappointed if I’d worked so hard, finished at the top of my class and not been able to give a speech. It was a nice moment to give some words of wisdom ... and I would’ve missed that.”

She said she also understands the board’s decision, especially when one considers, she said, that there are 15 students at her school who are tied for valedictorian next year. “Obviously, they can’t have 15 valedictorians giving speeches,” she said.

Hmmm, how about a steel-cage elimination match?

Armstead, who’ll be majoring in bio-chemistry at the University of South Carolina, said being valedictorian is not something that consumed her. “It wasn’t my goal,” she said, “until junior year. I realized then that I was doing so well and started working toward it.”

She also said she would’ve worked just as hard had there been no title of valedictorian to which to aspire.

That is what the school board needs to realize. As well intentioned as it is to want to alleviate pressure on kids, the effort is doomed. Just as anyone who has ever dated a stripper can tell you melodrama is encoded into their DNA, anyone who has ever raised a high-achieving student can tell you that pressure is encoded into their DNA. It is only from the perspective gained by the passage of time that one learns that having been valedictorian – along with $12.99 – will get you four Cinnabon rolls at the mall.

Of course, having been not been valedictorian and $12.99 will get you four Cinnabon rolls at the mall, too.

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