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At the risk of coming across as Braggy McSmartypants, I am going to tell you a little bit about being a valedictorian. Which I was. Or, rather, I say I was valedictorian of my 1990 high school class, because my family, with the exception of my Opa who barely finished 2nd grade, seems to collect that label like we collect recipes for baked goods that contain a lot of butter. That is to say, we have plenty of them in our family (valedictorians and recipes that use butter).
Really, though, I was just the only one in my class who had achieved “highest honors,” the top in a range of categories that had been created that replaced the traditional valedictorian and salutatorian labels. That replacement happened two years before I graduated, much to the dismay of my older friends who were graduating in 1988 and had spent their formative years working towards the coveted 1st place trophy-that-is-not-to-be-shared. Somehow, even with the superlative, being highest honors amidst an unspecified number of people who also had achieved the same GPA was not special enough. Plus, four or five speeches at graduation from high school seniors may not necessarily be a better show than one or two. I can say this because I gave a speech at my high school graduation. It was about the Berlin Wall coming down, which, in my seventeen-year-old editing capacity, could not have been boiled down to a two-minute feel-good address that would have been situated between student speakers #4 and #6, both of whom may have talked about prom and Prince. Speeches about prom and Prince, by the way, would not serve as good segues into our out of a talk on the downfall of the Cold War. (note to self: see how many graduation speeches this year include reference to Prince).
I think the reason my school made this terminology switch way back in the last century was so that we could seem more sophisticated in our rural southwest Minnesota town. You know, like summa cum laude, magna cum laude, and cum laude, but without that complicated Latin. Incidentally, these Latin phrases mean “with highest praise,” “with great praise” and “with praise,” according to this article. These terms came about in the 1800s.
Interestingly, the word valedictorian is actually about leaving. Valediction really means to say farewell. So a valedictorian is the person to announce that, hey all, it’s time to go. It’s like the parent who’s rounding up the kids for a family vacation and yells into the house with exasperation, “Hey, get your butts into the station wagon! We gotta make it to southern Wisconsin by suppertime so we can get some of Aunt Henny’s butter-laden BLT’s before they’re gone!”
Salutatorian, or the traditional “runner-up” label for the race towards academic prowess, means what you probably think it does. It comes from salutatory, which is related to greeting people. So, the second place person says hello, and the first place person says goodbye. If taken with these meanings, graduation ceremonies could be much shorter, with one person standing up and saying, “Hello,” the other “Goodbye,” and then we just give out the diplomas and head home for cake.
These terms are really about the speeches, I’m coming to realize, not about the honor. It’s like the word butter. You may not know its etymology, but you know it means something good.
Now I am starting to see why highest honors, high honors, and honors were used. They actually make sense. They imply a bar above which means you are higher than others. They are related to each other sensibly. They are the translations of the Latin.
Recently there have been news stories, and then the usual moral panic aftermath, of schools deciding to get rid of the labels valedictorian and salutatorian. This is, as one argument is presented, in order to prevent the unhealthy competition and grade grubbing that have seemed to overtake American high schools filled with students clamoring to get into good colleges. The response to these stories has included those lamenting the idea that our “everyone gets a trophy” society is lessening the meaning of any awards, or that students who can’t handle competition are being over-accommodated so much that they are not ever going to be able to handle anything short of total success. The other side of the discussion comes from those who say that if a student can’t handle not getting a top award, then the award carries with it too much stress. Making things competitive and hard to achieve without collateral damage to teenage health or sanity (or ethical judgment) sends the wrong kind of validation for the majority of the students. No amount of friendship loss or sleeplessness is worth adding .25 to the already uppermost 4.0 GPA.
In the school system my son attends, the terms valedictorian and salutatorian are still used at the high school level, but they can be awarded to any number of students who reach whatever the GPA level is that is required of each. I see this as a pretty good compromise. Keep the label as special. Allow room for as many to achieve as can. Seven valedictorians and two salutatorians? Bring on those nine two-minute speeches!
Of course, it should not be a risky thing to admit you achieved something big, even for you Braggy McSmartypants-types. But it should also not be the case that students are at risk for going about their student-y lives with only the goal of winning at all costs, even to one’s soul and body and relationships, in mind.
Validate achievement? Absolutely. Celebrate as many people who have achieved a high standard? Yes. Continue to have a conversation that acknowledges this is a complicated thing, since some people view academic success as meeting a standard, and others like a running race? Of course. One winner, many winners, or redirecting what we even think of when it comes to winning — this is hard stuff. Whoever figures this out should get a prize. And then that person can decide if she’s going to accept the prize for her individual work, or share it with others who have achieved something comparable.
Incidentally, I missed summa cum laude in college by 5/100ths of a GPA point. I was always good at learning written languages, so maybe if I would have taken Latin, I could have eeked out a summa.