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.”