Month: May 2012

Valedictorian? Here’s your participation trophy

UPDATE: My friend and Phi Mu Alpha Sinfonia Fraternity brother Wes, a college music theory professor, offers his two cents on this topic since it’s more in his wheelhouse. I recommend you head over and subscribe to his blog.

To the 22 Scott County High School valedictorians: congratulations on your high level of achievement. The road to get there was very difficult, and I sincerely hope the hard work pays off as you embark on the next collective chapter of your lives.

Now, please leave the room so the grownups can talk for a little bit. Go on.

Twenty-two valedictorians, SCHS? Really?

Is this an extension from these kids’ respective childhoods, when we didn’t keep score in T-ball or youth basketball and soccer because we were worried about the losers’ feelings getting hurt? As 17- and 18-year-olds, aren’t 21 of those kids able to own up to the idea that they tried hard, but that maybe they just weren’t good enough?

It’s a bitter pill to swallow, but this valedictorian business has gotten out of hand. At one time, a high school class had a single valedictorian. One. That’s it. End of story. “Game over, man. Game over.” There were rare exceptions, but more often than not, it was one person.

“But Tom, all these kids are ranked No. 1.” I don’t doubt that, but surely there must be a way to look at each of them, their coursework, their extracurricular activities and their accomplishments outside of school and make a qualitative judgment based on all those things. Surely someone who balanced their coursework with participation in a club, volunteer work and a part-time job would merit distinction over someone who focused solely on studying for four years. I’m not saying such an evaluation would be easy, but no one can say it is insurmountable. It happens all the time in the private sector. It’s called a job interview.

Yes, in four short years these 22 will presumably exit academia on equal footing with their peers, scrapping for a scant amount of jobs in a workforce that is becoming more competitive as we slowly recover from a recession. They will enter that jungle with the same credentials: a college degree and no experience. And if the economy doesn’t bounce back by then (and, no matter who is elected president, I don’t think it will), there isn’t an employer in the world who is going to look at a list of 22 equally qualified candidates and decide to hire them just because “gee, they all worked so darned hard.”  They’re going to do what Scott County High School should have done with its cadre of valedictorian candidates —pick one.

In case you were wondering, I was not valedictorian of my high school class, nor was I salutatorian, nor was I “sorry about your luck” No. 3. I don’t have a dog in this fight. But in the job market, I have been the No. 2 guy at least twice that I can remember. Second place doesn’t feel so good, and it sucks to lose, even when it’s a job you think you really want, but failure is as important as success. The kids know this. Once upon a time, the adults in their lives knew this too.

Forget for a moment that most of the competitive colleges aren’t even looking at class rank anymore, a fact I confirmed talking last year with a college admissions official fromTransylvaniaUniversity, one ofKentucky’s very competitive private colleges. Forget that. Diluting a distinction that once went to one person among 22 cheapens the honor. It’s like living inChinaand being told you are one in a million. It sounds good, but it really means there are a million other people just like you.

Kudos, though, valedictorians, on fulfilling those difficult requirements and enduring the death march of academic rigor. I’m sorry, though, that the adults in your lives have refused to teach you a real life lesson before you are drop-kicked into the college life.

Director’s commentary: The preceding column appeared in the May 26, 2012, edition of the Georgetown News-Graphic, the paper I used to write for. I actually proposed doing this column last year, but my editor at the time, Pete Mathews, and publisher, Mike Scogin, thought it would make a better news story. At the time, I wasn’t so sure about that, but did it as an objective piece anyway. I’m glad I did, because letting this topic ferment in my brain for a year with the objective data I picked up for the story in 2011 was the best thing I could have done for this opinion column.

For the record, I played youth soccer and T-ball starting at six years old. We kept score. I suffered no ill effects, even without the participation trophies. If you finished first second or third, you got a trophy, in descending size according to the order of finish. Apart from that you got a stinking ribbon. Even if we sucked, I still remember having fun.

To take it a step further, I also have a problem with kindergartners wearing caps and gowns as they “graduate” to first grade. The only other place you see adults putting kids into outfits normally reserved for grownups is on “Toddlers and Tiaras.” 

The sanctity of marriage

These two might be compelled to come out of their mothball-scented closet if they were allowed to get hitched.

Last week North Carolina took a giant step back in denying same-sex couples the right to marry or enter into civil unions. Voters there cast their “yes” votes for a variety of reasons, but the most troubling to me was the notion that allowing gay and lesbian couples the right to get married would somehow endanger the so-called “sanctity of marriage.”

I’ve never quite bought that.

“Your marriage is in jeopardy, Tom.”

“Really?! Please tell me more.”

“It’s the gays. They want to damage your marriage.”

“What do you mean? Like lesbians want my wife?”

“No. God forbid. No. They’re diminishing your marriage.”

“So, I’m somehow LESS married than I was before?”


(Pulling out marriage license) “But it says right here-“

“Oh, no, silly boy. In the eyes of the church.”

“What church?”

“Does it matter?”

“No, not particularly. We were married by a judge.”

“Oh, that’s going to be a problem. Why weren’t you married by a man of the cloth?”

“So we wouldn’t have to answer nosy questions about our personal lives.”

(awkward silence)

In 2004 Kentucky voters, for reasons passing understanding, decided to define marriage as a union between one man and one woman. The day it was ratified into the state constitution I did not get a feeling that I was MORE married or SUPERmarried, although I’m sure there were plenty of folks gloating over it who did.

The thing that really stuck in my craw about that campaign was a bumper sticker that proponents of the amendment used. It had a silhouette of a man and a woman like you see on the restroom signs and then the man and woman with a bunch of little silhouettes representing kids. The message was this: Man plus woman equals family.

Now, where does that put my wife and I and the other childless married couples we know? Is there some sort of legal obligation we are failing to fulfill? Are we somehow less of a family? Our two pit bulls and seven cats would disagree. Are we somehow missing the point of marriage by not having had children yet? Should we be fined?

I’m proud to know gay people who have solemnized their love with a legal wedding ceremony. I’m sorry they had to travel out of state to do it. If I was part of an interracial couple that grew up during the Civil Rights movement, I’d sure start thinking that all this talk of defending the “sanctity of marriage” sounded eerily familiar.

Believing in the sanctity of marriage is fine, but let’s define it not by the gender of the individuals entering the union, but rather by the quality of their love for each other. Let’s face it. If your marriage is so fragile that it will shatter at the mere notion of the forthcoming nuptials of Adam and Steve, maybe you need to reconsider why you got married.

I don’t enjoy living in a world where same-sex unions are more of a threat to the sanctity of marriage than, say, Kim Kardashian.

Discrimination is wrong, it’s rude, and in this day and age it’s un-American. Moreover, it puts us on equal footing with the theocratic regimes we claim to be fighting against.

And I think we’re better than that.