I did catch one of the two "very special Oprah" episodes. One of the segments that has stayed in my mind and continues to agitate me on many levels was about a young woman who was the valedictorian of her high school class. She went off to college, thinking she had the world on a string and after only a few weeks of classes realized . . . she was woefully underprepared. Actually, I think that's putting it mildly. She didn't know what the hell she was doing. She was not just struggling but failing most of her classes. If memory serves (cut me some slack, people - this was back in April!), she was especially struggling with her math and science classes.
On the Oprah episode she kept saying, "I was my high school valedictorian, but I had never seen a Bunsen burner." And her point was that her high school hadn't truly prepared her for college. But I kept thinking: Having the title of "Valedictorian" bestowed upon you is not the same thing as being declared a genius. Nor is it the same thing as being told that you're really smarter than everyone around you. And I think she was confusing a title meaning "highest GPA in your class" with "I'm smarter than everybody else."
Exhibit A: I still remember my high school valedictorian. He wasn't exactly the sharpest knife in the drawer, and yet, supposedly, I grew up in a community that has "really good schools!" (Barf! That makes me gag! Yeah, it was small. Yeah, we were all white kids and to my knowledge, nobody ever brought a knife to school. Although someone did set off a smoke bomb in the boy's bathroom the year before I got there but that's another post. Just because I was in a statistics class with only 4 other students does not mean they were good schools. But I digress.) Anyway, do you know how that kid got all As, all the time? I'll tell you, 'cause I sat next to the schmuck in senior English. We'd get an exam back. He'd miss, oh, some really easy questions. During class (but usually after), he'd say charmingly (I'll give him that - he was very well mannered and I don't think his intent was sinister although perhaps I'm not giving him enough credit) to our teacher, "Miss Appletree, on this question? I thought you were asking about this, so that's why I answered it that way." And Miss Appletree would blush and smile a little bit and say, "Oh, okay, dear. I'll fix it." And lo and behold, his solid test grade of B had been miraculously transformed into a solid test grade of A with minimal effort.
And our Salutatorian cheated on exams. Quite a bit. Although she was much, much smarter than the Valedictorian. She just didn't have the charm and personality to get the blue ribbon.
My mom told me how in so many of her system's high schools, it's a big deal just for these kids to graduate. And when (or if) they graduate, the high schools award the titles of Valedictorian and Salutatorian to the two students with the two highest GPAs. In this school system, the Valedictorian often has a 2.0002 and the Salutatorian often has a 2.0000. And yet, these students can put a pretty impressive looking accomplishment on their resumes.
And then, I see them in my classroom and they can't base an argument on logic or deductive reasoning and they can barely write, yet they get pissed off at me when I return their papers with, "Please rewrite; I cannot understand this," because: "Hey! Whaddaya mean I can't write? I was my high school valedictorian. Stupid white bitch."
So, all this time, I've been bitching about the grades I've been seeing in the student advising center (aside - Monday takes the cake. A student with a high school GPA of 1.6), and perhaps the problem isn't not enough focus on grades, perhaps the problem is too much focus on grades.
This morning, I stumbled upon the article which inspired this post and gave me the word for its title. Please read this article by Rabbi Gellman. You won't be sorry. And then please, please, please come back and let me know your thoughts. Should we do away with "Valedictorian" and "Salutatorian?"