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Topped out



Since most of you weren't it, most of you may not know that the valedictorian is the kid whose class-high GPA earns them the right to speak at the commencement ceremony. But picking one person as valedictorian has become a pain in the ass.

Accusations of parental politicking and of kids taking easy classes to boost their GPAs would be enough to make anyone give up on a simple old tradition, and that's exactly what schools are doing. Some have changed the rules to recognize the whole top 5 percent of the class. Some have ended up with 20 valedictorians. Sounds like one myopic pizza party.

Having just one "best" has always annoyed people, especially those who aren't picked. Since "best" here usually also means scholarships and college admittance, it's been posited that having mass valedictorians serves a "social agenda," which some see as widening doorways and others see as lowering standards.

If schools really wanted to make everyone feel great they would forget about honoring the top students (whose achievements will be their own reward) and have the dumbest kid deliver the address. Doofus McDrawers may never be asked to speak at anything else again in his life. Having not paid any attention in school, he would not know why he got the job, what it meant or be insulted by it. Once he got up there the self-esteem of the rest of the class would shoot up like a Roman candle, and 99 percent instead of just 1 percent or 5 percent could claim the world as their oyster. Why not? Goofier things have been tried to enhance the self-esteem of teen-agers, but from the number of them going on shooting rampages, they aren't working.

Listen up

I'm just smart enough to figure that last part out. I was never in any danger of being the valedictorian of my class.

In fact, my peers and I in the class of 1982 may have the dubious distinction of being among the first to dress in black and shun society. We were moody and cynical, but to us the meaninglessness was just an excuse to stay out later and drink more. We thought it was fun. We never imagined that one day our idea of style would be associated with homicidal mania. Kids today.

We were never so mopey that we didn't find lots of pleasure in life, and one of my greatest pleasures was reading Kurt Vonnegut Jr. He writes eloquently about how life is frustrating, hollow and meaningless and still makes it sound like a warm, magical place you're lucky to be in. In other words, he basically tells the truth about life. I thought that was dazzling.

One of Vonnegut's best tales, "Harrison Bergeron," was set in a future where there were no bests. People were so equal that ballerinas wore masks so no one would appear more beautiful or graceful than another. Harrison's mother was a bright woman, so she had an implant placed in her head that made frequent shrill sounds so she couldn't think too long and thus be smarter than anyone else. Harrison himself was so strong and grand he had to wear more disfiguring devices than most other people could even lift. He danced for joy despite his handicaps. They shot him. Everything was on an even keel. No one felt better or worse than anyone else.

I love that story.

Certainly, "Harrison Bergeron" suggests we should celebrate others' victories instead of being big crybabies about them. But it's also about the depressing fact that, no matter what the issue, people are capable of carrying it to idiotic extremes. Either they're screaming at their 8-year-olds to beat the other 8-year-olds in Little League, or they're electing 20 valedictorians so everyone's a winner. No wonder kids go nuts.

So it goes

Whether sweating over a tenth of a grade-point percentage for themselves, their parents, their potential schools or the title of valedictorian, kids should realize that winning doesn't mean "doodly squat," as Vonnegut would say, if you didn't pick a fight you really liked. When you're doing things you love, you don't look over your shoulder to monitor how everyone else is doing. You don't care. Sometimes the people who win are the ones who were not aware they were in a race. That's the kind of irony life throws at you.

And that's the kind of advice I'd give if I were valedictorian. Short and sweet. "Fight, but make sure you pick your battles or you're going to feel pretty stupid when you go home having killed your own army."

Kurt Vonnegut makes commencement speeches, one in particular that became famous for not being his. It was circulated on the Internet and was such a good fraud that even his wife was fooled. It carried this advice: Wear sunscreen.

Makes sense to me. That way, if you happen to leave the crowd in the shadows, at least you won't get burned.


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