Hopeful valedictorians bolster their GPAs

Beena Raghavendran | Staff Writer

Not just anyone can become valedictorian anymore, according to honors-level teachers at Mason High School. As this annual contest approaches its finish (the last day of second trimester), the love for learning in students competes with the drive to be the best.

The title of valedictorian is synonymous with a speech at graduation, scholarship money and the position as a role model in the student body. But according to students at the top of the class of 2010, the road to the podium is filled with competition, hard work and an intrinsic spur.

According to Margaret Talbot’s 2005 examination of competition between potential high school valedictorians in The New Yorker, seventeenth century education reformer Horace Mann used valedictorians to promote his new education system; a good speech by a valedictorian often meant more audience contributions to the school.

Unlike the valedictorians in Mann’s time who were shown off to increase school funding, Talbot said that the rank today is weighted with heavy competition. She said that it has become more cut-throat because of the vast number of students that work hard, which she said is particularly the case in large community high schools like MHS.

Because of this competition, it is necessary to have an outstanding grade point average (GPA) to be valedictorian, according to MHS guidance counselor Marty Zack. He said the formula to determine a GPA is the grade received in the class divided by the length of the class (in credit hours), all added to the weight given to the class, meaning Honors or Advanced Placement (AP) courses. This is why valedictorians must take as many AP and Honors classes as possible — their GPAs will rise because of the extra points from the weights.

Senior Dennis Tseng, currently one of the three students at the top of the class of 2010, said that because of Mason’s natural competitiveness and the way GPAs are calculated, a rigorous schedule is necessary to becoming valedictorian.

“You need to take the hardest courses [to become valedictorian],” Tseng said. “[At Mason], a B in an Honors course is better than an A in a regular course.”

MHS Class of 2007’s valedictorian and a junior at Yale University, Andrea Sohn, said that achieving valedictorian status requires sacrifice and a strong work ethic.

“[Becoming valedictorian takes] a combination of factors — you have to want to take honors/AP classes in a lot of different subjects, even those that might not be the most interesting for you,” Sohn said. “And in order to [give up the interesting classes], you have to work hard.”

MHS Class of 1996’s valedictorian and math teacher Heather Verstreate said she thinks that though the competition was less intense in her high school days, hard work trumps intelligence in many circumstances.

“[Becoming valedictorian] wasn’t something we talked about until the end of senior year, [but] the ironic part of [being valedictorian] was [that] I wasn’t the smartest person — I just worked harder [than my peers],” Verstreate said. “I would never say I was the smartest of the class.”

A Senior Capstone teacher from 2002-2006, currently in her twentieth year of teaching at Mason, Honors English III teacher Ann Helwig said she can see valedictorians’ high amount of effort even during their junior year, but usually can’t detect the actual competition between potential valedictorians.

“I might be able to pick up [who is at the top], but not like [the valedictorian contenders] can,” Helwig said. “It’s like a horse race between the three or four, nose[s] to the line.”

Honors English II teacher Fred Reeder said he can pinpoint the top sophomore students relatively quickly.

“I can tell within the first week or two who the top students are, the ones who are good but not great and the ones that will struggle,” Reeder said. “For some, [I know by] the first day.”

But from the large pool of top students, only one can become valedictorian – or two, in the case of MHS’ class of 2009 with Peter Chen and Tong Zhan as co-valedictorians. In either case, former Senior Capstone teacher in his twentieth year of teaching and current Honors Pre-Calculus teacher Johnothon Sauer said the reason it is tricky to name valedictorians in advance is not because teachers can’t predict it, but because so many bright students have the potential to achieve the position.

“In teaching an honors course, you have a roomful of kids who, given the right circumstances and the right school, would be the valedictorian — but[they’re at Mason] in the middle of a bunch of really good kids, so it isn’t quite so easy to pick out,” Sauer said.

According to Zack, the GPA accumulation stops at the end of seniors’ second trimester, which makes grading equal (especially important in a race between many students); this deadline for GPAs makes this the last chance for LaRue, Tseng and senior Rohit Rao. As a result, they have heavily loaded their schedules for this trimester: LaRue and Tseng have three AP and two honors courses each, and Rao is taking four AP classes and one honors course. Because of this intensity, Rao said he often questions why he takes such difficult classes.

“[I’m taking] AP Physics, AP Calculus, AP Biology, Honors Senior Capstone [and] AP Multicultural Literature,” Rao said. “Late in the night, [at] 12:30, I say, ‘Why am I killing myself?’”

While this intense atmosphere proves that intelligence doesn’t trump hard work in today’s contest, LaRue said another major factor narrows the competition down further: early preparation. She said she had an early taste of the honors track before moving to Mason by participating in the double honors program as a fifth grader at Sand Creek Intermediate in Fishers, Indiana; according to her, the competition was less prevalent among her peers, mainly because it was between only those who had taken Honors Geometry as eighth graders (double honors math).

“For [Tseng, Rao and me], it wasn’t very competitive, probably because it was just between us, and we knew it,” LaRue said. “[I was in] double honors by fifth grade. I wanted to get advanced in math because I loved math.”

But unlike some who think double honors and serious planning are the only ways to become valedictorian, current double honors eighth grade students Amulya Joseph, Austin Harden and Jacob Damge said they haven’t even thought about pursuing a valedictorian rank yet — it’s too early. Harden said that though the straight-A high school career is a challenge, valedictorians pursue it because of their self-motivational mindset.

“[Valedictorians] have a competitive nature and a drive to be the best,” Harden said. Zack said that this competition makes the students in the running strive to win, outweighing some of the stresses of the race; it also drives the rest of the class to do its best.

“A lot of kids love competition,” Zack said. “By having a valedictorian, the whole class gets pushed harder.”

On the other hand, Tseng said that he wishes the valedictorian position wasn’t so revered, because of the negative response it gives to those not in the rank.

“I wish they didn’t put so much emphasis on class rank, [because it’s like saying], ‘I’m better or worse than the other student,’” Tseng said. “I wish that people didn’t care about it so much — it’s just one factor.”

But the necessity of the academic rigor of the class to increase GPAs can cause some to have to make sacrifices, like LaRue. She said that since she wanted to be valedictorian, some appealing classes and electives were replaced by academics to maintain her high GPA.

“[Pursuing the valedictorian position] was not worth it,” LaRue said. “I wish I could have pursued some of my interests, [and] that I would have stopped pursuing [becoming valedictorian] early… [There’s] no reason to take AP Physics if you’re never going to use it in life.”

Rao said that while he is satisfied with his high school career, he thinks that getting a B isn’t the end of the world.

“I think I’ve done a good job, [and] I really do like my classes, [but being valedictorian] isn’t all it’s cracked up to be,” Rao said. “It’s okay to get a B here or there, as long as you’re involved [in the class].”

Reeder said he thinks that beyond the competition and GPAs, the true internal motivation for valedictorians is the timeless love for learning.

“Natural curiosity [makes a valedictorian] — [the fact] that you care to learn,” Reeder said. “We all have a level of how much we care. The top students not only care a lot about their success, but then they go out and do something about it.”