Summa Cum What?

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To the 41 Valedictorians of Memorial High School: 


Congratulations! You have attained the over-achievers' dream: graduating first in your high school class. Well, kind of first. In the top 41, at least. Which might take a bit of the shine off the award, I imagine. But lest you despair at the honor not quite feeling as great as you once imagined it might, here are a few thoughts to console you:

1. You have a lot of company. Not just on the graduation podium, what with 40 other students carrying "I'm #1!" signs up there with you, but in the country as a whole. Apparently, many other high schools have decided that if one valedictorian is good, then four dozen must be better. Garfield High School in Seattle had 44 valedictorians a couple of years ago, and a school district in Colorado this year had a whopping 94, according to a recent article in The New York Times. This mysterious trend toward inclusiveness might have something to do with an increasing number of parent-instigated lawsuits over who gets awarded valedictorian status, of course (a disturbing development Margaret Talbot wrote about in The New Yorker several years ago). But, hey. That means there are lots of valedictorians out there who had to share the stage with even more bodies than you did. 

2. It really doesn't matter. For all the fuss your parents are making about this right now... and perhaps all the sleep you've lost over it yourself... being valedictorian of your high school class is really, seriously, honest-and-truly NOT going to make or break the rest of your life, or even the rest of your academic career. Especially when schools are handing the honor out to 10, 17, 33 or 45 people in a class. The Times article quoted the admissions director of Harvard, in fact, as saying the school didn't really pay much attention to the honor anymore. Which is a tad ironic, given that Harvard is the school that apparently started the tradition in the first place, back in 1759. Something about the honor's meaning being diluted by home-schooled "valedictorians" of a class of one, and this whole idea of having 30 valedictorians in a single class. (That's the problem with inflation. At some point, the currency becomes meaningless.)

Don't get me wrong. Getting good grades does matter -- to a point. It shows a college -- or a potential grad school or employer -- that you're some level of smart, at least when it comes to academics. It also shows that you know how to take work seriously, you know how to apply yourself and put in effort even when you don't feel like it, and you know how to complete tasks in a quality and timely manner. It shows you can meet a deadline. These are all really important skills to have in life. Truth to tell, it's one of the reasons employers care so much about a four-year college degree. In many cases, it's not the facts and figures you acquire that matter (Saturday Night Live once did a sketch called "The Five-Minute College Education," which the comics said they could provide by teaching only what you'd remember five years out of college, anyway). But having a four-year degree tells employers that you know how to process and prioritize an overload of information, you know how to stick with tasks that aren't always fun, and you know how to complete jobs on time, in a competent manner. 

So good grades do matter. And they DO open doors. It's just that being valedictorian, even in the old days, only meant that you had a slightly higher grade point average than the next guy. Sometimes by a hair's breadth of a decimal point. What does that mean? It means, well, that you have a slightly higher grade point average than the next guy. It doesn't mean that you have wisdom, maturity, depth, creativity, life skills, humor, street smarts, common sense, emotional strength, or any other qualities that matter not only to college admissions directors, as they try to sort out the multitude of applicants with high grade point averages, but which also matter a whole lot more than grade point averages in the bigger game of life. 

Seriously. Ask any mid-50s group of professionals, and they will tell you how many over-achieving classmates fizzled or became alcoholics, unemployed, or just terribly unhappy in the years after graduation, because they lacked the balance or life skills to handle the inevitable curve balls life throws out along the way. Knowing how to pick yourself up after failure and learn something from it, it turns out, is far more important than being such a wonderful success in the first place. Silicon Valley venture capitalists, in fact, say they prefer funding entrepreneurs who've experienced failure and can talk honestly about what it taught them, and how they learned to adjust and regroup after the fall. (This is good news for all the students who just missed making even the expanded category of "valedictorian" this year.)

And while you might think life will be over if you don't get into Harvard, Stanford, or Yale, it might be instructive to read about George Valiant's longitudinal study of 268 members of the Harvard Classes of '42,'43, and '44, chronicled in a June, 2009 Atlantic article titled "What Makes Us Happy?" All of the study subjects had made it into Harvard. And yet, the study results showed--quite clearly--that going to Harvard did not guarantee either success or happiness. 

The truth is, the big challenge in life isn't being the best at taking tests. It's figuring out how to be a whole, integrated, happy and healthy human, throughout all the events life asks you to handle along the way. And grade point average has very little to do with that. 

3. Finally, and perhaps most ironically, Valedictorian doesn't even mean being first in your class. What it really means, if we're going to get Latin and literal about it, is "speaker of farewell words." Or something along those lines. Which is to say, it is simply the person who gives the valedictory, or farewell, address. And the prospect of 41 speakers at a graduation is actually somewhat horrifying, at least to anyone who's not a parent of the 41 potential speakers. If you ask me, that alone is argument enough for going back to the old system, lawsuits and all. 

Fortunately, few of the high schools with numerous valedictorians have gone so far as to subject the commencement audience to 17 valedictory addresses. But as anyone who's sat through a few family graduation exercises can attest, a high grade point average does not necessarily correlate--at all--with a talent for public speaking.

Personally, I don't have an objection to naming one person valedictorian. If the World Cup and Olympic judges can figure out how to pick one winner, even when there's an apparent tie, surely high schools can, too. And if it's not entirely fair ... well, maybe that's good preparation for the real world. Because for sure and for certain, everything that happens to you in the years to come is not going to be "fair." 

But if that's problematic, or too expensive in legal fees, then perhaps the best option is just to go with a different type of Latin honors. Separate the top layers of grade-point-average-achieving students the way many colleges do: by designating them into groups of "Cum Laude," "Magna Cum Laude," and "Summa Cum Laude." And then select someone to give the graduation, or "valedictory," address by more sensible methods: look for someone who has a story worth telling, or some demonstrated skill in speaking. Perhaps an essay contest, with written and oral components to it. 

Trust me. Your audience will thank you. And then you, the honored graduates, can get on with the business of going out into the world to acquire all those really important life skills--or at least celebrating your graduation--all that much sooner. 

I wish you all the very best of luck.
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Lane Wallace is a pilot and adventure writer. She is the author of Surviving Uncertainty: Taking a Hero's Journey.

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