hypercompetitiveness…

by sam on 06/3/2005

The New Yorker this week has a really fascinating article about the recent phenomenon of high school students suing to become valedictorian. Kids with extremely close GPAs, kids who get "regular" grades (as opposed to weighted "honors" or AP grades) for participating in certain activities like sports, kids who figure out how to game the system (sign of creative thinking or just plain sneaky?).

But the phenomenon is not so new. And perhaps I find the article so interesting because 13 years ago, when I graduated from high school (wow, now I feel old), my high school was involved in a similar situation. My high school was incredibly competitive, and my class was, at the time, the smartest class to graduate in the 20 years that the school had been open. I wasn’t exactly a dummy, and took multiple honors and AP classes, but out of 380 kids, I ranked somewhere in the 70s (they only gave out actual rankings to the top 10 kids).

Anyway, when it came time to name the valedictorian and salutatorian, the principle called these two guys (let’s refer to them as M and S) into his office and explained that their GPAs were only .008 apart, so he had a proposal. If they both agreed, before finding out who had the higher GPA, they could be named co-valedictorians and J, who was third in the class (and who was all of 15, had completed high school in 3 years, and went on to study physics and math at the University of Chicago) would be salutatorian. I think S (who was a friend of mine), didn’t really care – he had already gotten into Harvard early and been a Westinghouse finalist. But it didn’t matter, because M, confident that he was in first place, refused. And then found out that he had the lower GPA, meaning S would be valedictorian.

So M sued. He sued the school, the principal, and our AP English and Chemistry teachers (for giving him As instead of A+s) in order to be named co-valedictorian. He argued that because S took band, which was ungraded, and he took art, which was a "regular" class, and therefore did not receive honors weighting, he was at a disadvantage (nevermind that he could have signed up for band). He guilt tripped our AP English teacher until she did change his grade (and the grades of everyone in the class to be "fair"). She actually took early retirement at the end of that year after all of the chaos. He tried to guilt trip our AP Chemistry teacher, who flat out refused – grades in his class were based entirely on exams, which had no leeway. M got what he "earned", and Mr. W wasn’t about to bend to the pressure.

When it eventually got to court (and yes, it got that far), the judge laughed M out of his courtroom. In the judge’s view, the school set up rules, gave M an opportunity that he rejected, and then when he didn’t get the answer he wanted, insisted on a do-over. He made his own bed…yadda yadda yadda…

It all seemed so crazy at the time, that someone would go to such lengths over what was essentially a title. But apparently we were just at the front of the curve.

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