BY SHAHÉ MANKERIAN
“The origin of the word valedictorian is the Latin valedicere, which means bid farewell. Valedicere in turn comes from valere, be well, and dicere, to say.” — Vocabulary.com Dictionary
Sometimes an act of elimination becomes an act of illumination.
In June, the Class of 2019 at St. Gregory Hovsepian School took the ownership of eliminating a long-standing tradition. These renegade 8th graders questioned the relevance and the validity of a valedictorian. Why do we need a valedictorian? They asked. The answers were aplenty, but first the rationale.
As a principal, I’ve always wrestled with the notion of appointing a valedictorian during middle school commencements. Sifting through publications, nowhere did I find any research in support of this topic. In contrast, countless publications discredited and vilified the role of high school valedictorians and class rankings. The leading authority on this subject, Karen Arnold, a professor at Boston College and the author of Lives of Promise: What Becomes of High School Valedictorians, followed the lives of 81 high school valedictorians for 14 years after graduation and claimed: “Even though most [high school valedictorians] are strong occupational achievers, the great majority of [them] do not appear headed for the very top of adult achievement arenas… the number ones in school so rarely become the number ones in real life… [They] aren’t likely to be the future’s visionaries . . . they typically settle into the system instead of shaking it up.”
Furthermore, Arnold’s research suggested that most academic institutions rewarded students who consistently conformed or complied with the system. Their academic grades loosely correlated with intelligence, meaning they took the job of earning good grades seriously. Valedictorians, therefore, tended to be the hardest workers and not necessarily the smartest students. At best, they possessed self-discipline, conscientiousness, and the eagerness to fulfill their teachers’ expectations. In fact, students who truly enjoyed learning, most often struggled in school because they divided their attention between the subjects they loved passionately and battled with the demands of their other coursework. Intellectual students struggled with this tension; valedictorians excelled.
Knowing about Arnold’s research, I invited my 8th grade students to deliberate over the role of the valedictorian during the 2018 – 2019 academic year. Our heated debates led to passionate diatribes. In order to fend off slings and arrows, I gave them plenty of time to reflect. They wrote: “With all these talented people in our class, I don’t know why only one individual will define us or get recognized. We all have strengths. It’s not fair that the talent of grades will be deemed superior.”
They wrote: “Do not make me doubt myself as a learner.”
They wrote: “Do not tear friendships by meaningless awards.”
They wrote: “We should be studying and learning for ourselves, not for others.”
They wrote: “The valedictorian worked very hard for grades, but we worked equally hard to learn.”
They wrote: “How do you assess talent?”
They wrote: “Because of Hovsepian School, I am carrying so much more inside me than grades.”
They wrote: “The valedictorian award is blind to the student’s personality.”
They wrote: “Baron Shahé, define the phrase, ‘Working hard.’ And who said, I didn’t?”
They wrote: “The GPA should not define the student; student’s character should.”
They wrote after watching Dead Poets’ Society: “It just means that our school is also stuck with the dangers of conformity. Baron Shahé, you have taught us to think outside the box.”
They wrote: “All of us are different learners, great learners. No one should cage us with grades.”
In the end, I listened to my students. At the graduation, I shared with the public the unifying concerns of the 8th graders. We did not have a valedictorian; in its place, all thirteen graduates were recognized for their unique strengths. Moreover, each had the opportunity to share their gratitude with the attendees. Their voices were powerfully succinct and poetic.
In my closing remarks, I thanked them for their brave stance and concluded the ceremony with the following parting words: “Dear Students, No one should define you because of your grades. You are much more than that. You’re right, you should be defined by your character. Don’t mis-understand me, grades are important; they might help you push some academic doors, but don’t ever become a pushover for grades. Let your passion drive you. If you love to learn with all your heart, then grades will come in abundance. But you have to be unequivocally passionate about learning. We do not gush over Beethoven’s report card; we gush over his music. We do not ad-mire Silva Gaboudikian’s grades in her Armenian class, we admire her fervent poetry about life. Kirk Krikorian, William Saroyan and Alfred Hovsepian never finished school, but they passion-ately embraced their crafts. They were valedictorians for life. Dear students, remember passionate learners and upstanding individuals outlast valedictorians.”