121 More Valedictorians Than Dalmatians

The high school from which I graduated just named 222 valedictorians; this former valedictorian is mildly chagrined.

This is NOT going to be an
This is NOT going to be an “everyone gets a trophy” rant, but…

On June 3, 1984 I spoke at my graduation from Dublin High School. At that time, Dublin had less than 4000 inhabitants, there was only one high school, and the sole traffic light on Sawmill Road south of I-270 was at Rt. 161.

That's my inspiration face.
That’s my inspiration face.

That day, my co-valedictorian and I gave what has been described as “an inspiring, well-prepared valedictorian speech” to a crowded set of football bleachers. Now Dublin has over 43,000 residents, there are three high schools, and driving on Sawmill frightens me down to my Shamrocks. My high school is now called Coffman, and the bleachers I spoke before are now the visitors’ seats at the shiny bajillion-dollar football “complex” they built on the other side of the school. Moreover, the school I went to is now invisible behind masses of additional wings.

Oh, and there are also 111 times as many valedictorians. From the Columbus Dispatch on June 3rd of this year:

Graduation ceremonies might still be going on if Dublin schools had asked all of its valedictorians to speak.

There were 222 of them.

That means two out of every 10 graduates at Dublin’s three high schools received top honors this year. Dublin Scioto had 44 valedictorians, Dublin Jerome had 82, and Dublin Coffman had 96.

Or to put it another way, the Dublin City School district now has 40 more valedictorians than it had graduating seniors in 1984. Yes, the district now has over 1100 grads, but at that same ratio, my class of 182 would have had 36 valedictorians.

Or yet another way, 121 more valedictorian than Dalmatians.

Even The Today Show’s toothy people who populate the show’s misbegotten third hour, had a laugh at Dublin’s expense. My alma mater is now a laughing stock.

This isn’t going to be some lament about how “everybody gets a trophy.” If you look at the comments section of the Dispatch article, a quick scansion shows approximately 850 mentions of that phrase. And, yes, I know I used “scansion” incorrectly. Would anyone but a valedictorian know it’s used incorrectly? I don’t think so.

No, my lament is about how this development cheapens one of my better cocktail-party lines. For some reason, mentioning this fact elicits a very pleasing “Well, isn’t that nice, but, again, please tell me what that has to do with Caitlyn Jenner?” Now I’m scared that dropping this tidbit will now only brings a cascade of “Me too’s” from the entire room.

I’m very cognizant of the fact that I peaked early, having caught a nasty case of the bipolars by my second semester at that Ivy League school I had to leave. But the whole reason I was able to get into a few Ivy League schools was that I could trumpet my class rank on applications. Now all referring to oneself as a “Dublin High School valedictorian” means you got just enough B’s in AP classes to get a 4.1. I have no way to compare this to my 3.98 as Dublin didn’t have AP classes back then or awarded you a magic 5 if you got an A. The best you could do was earning a 4.0 in “normal” classes. If you wanted to learn advanced stuff, you pestered teachers enough until they assigned you extra work. For instance, Mr. DeMatteis, my English Lit teacher senior year had us memorize all the English monarchs going back to 1066. In order. Grouped by dynasty. “What’s next? Memorizing their shoe sizes?” I sassed back.

“You do,” he said without breaking a beat. I called his bluff and spent a few weeks digging around in libraries, squinting a microfiche, and even getting a very gruff Charles Hector Fitzroy Maclean, Baron Maclean, the Lord Chamberlain of the Household on the phone. Well, maybe it wasn’t THE Charles Hector Fitzroy Maclean, Baron Maclean, the Lord Chamberlain of the Household, but it was some Scottish guy important enough that it took being transferred seven times on a transatlantic phone call –when that was something that got an Ohio Bell bill shook in your face by your irate father a month later –to reach. “Yes sir, I’m wondering if you could tell me what size shoe the Queen wears?”

“How the hell should I know!” and he slammed the phone down. (To this day an angry Scots burr still sends a shiver deep down to my psychosexually complex loins.) Mr. DeMatteis hailed this as smart-assed initiative, worthy of an A and a mention on my college rec forms. Today my doctor calls it hypomania and asks me if I’ve had my lithium levels checked like he asked me to. Nonetheless, this freedom from an AP curriculum helped foster a lifelong love of both research and all things British-ish.

I totally understand the desire to honor all students who took AP courses, but I busted my ass for that 3.98. And, mark my words, it would’ve been a perfect 4.0 had not an intensely paranoid Algebra II teacher freshman year lost her grade book five weeks into one grading period. “I know you all stole it!” she screamed at us in a gust of cigarette breath, somehow believing we were all part of we were capable of pulling off an Oceans 11-type heist. To teach us an important lesson in “respect,” she began the grading period then, cancelling out our previous work. Math was never my strong suit, and each grading period was, to me, a nail biter. I needed the full six weeks to get into a groove. Now I only had a week. I got a B-. Not that I blame this woman for anything, but I’m sure I would’ve gotten off the waitlist for Harvard had she counted those early quizzes, and, instead of hacking away at this piece at a Panera at closing time, I’d be dictating it to my factotum Elroy from the comfort of my sedan chair.

By the way, “factotum” is one of those words you get to throw around when your valedictorian. You don’t even have know what a “factotum” is. Just the very mention of the fact that you were valedictorian fills people with such all-encompassing awe that all you need to do is say “factotum” in a slightly lower octave than usual and not stammer, and they’ll not question you. To wit: “United had the nerve to charge me a fee because my factotum would not fit into the overhead compartment.” But now that all it takes to be valedictorian is being in the 80th percentile, that awesome conversational power I once wielded like a mace is muted.

From the Dispatch:

Mark Raiff, the district’s chief academic officer, said he is wary of a system that recognizes one student as valedictorian, which can create a “hypercompetitive environment that’s not healthy for kids.”

In my case, getting A’s wasn’t part of any “hypercompetitive environment.” It was how I survived. My first couple of years of high school at Dublin weren’t exactly fun. During the day and on the bus home, I was bullied pretty mercilessly. There was some remarkably prescient homophobia thanks to my last name, a too quick wit, and a minor speech issue. There was also some weirdly misplaced anti-Semitism, probably because I had dark hair, had just moved from the East Coast, and had a minor speech issue. I could understand why I was catching flak for my last name, Fay, rhyming with “gay.” After all, who doesn’t love a good, simple rhyme? From time to time? However, I couldn’t understand why, after they looked up the definition and etymology of “Fay,” they continued to draw Stars of David on my notebook when I wasn’t looking. How powerful is someone’s anti-Semitism that they continue with it even after finding out your name comes from the Old French and means “fairy, sprite, or elf?”

Valedictorians tend to go to grad school, and in one of my stints there I learned the phrase “the horror of the other.” I just wanted to drop it in here because it’s really fun to say with a stereotypical New York (i.e. Jewish) accent.

cheap-trick5
Bun’s on the left.

I was being othered like a mutha******. For the entirety of freshman year I ate lunch by myself, standing up in the locker bays so as to not draw attention to my person. Even innocuous conversations with questions like, “What bands do you like?” were fraught with danger.

“Umm, Cheap Trick?”

“You want to blow Bun E. Carlos, don’t you faggot?”

And in the afternoon, after a day spent dodging all this, I got to go home to a mom who was dying of brain cancer. Mockery followed by death; death followed by mockery.

My only escape was throwing myself into my work; my only revenge was blowing the curve for these idiots. One kid’s hypercompetitive environment is another kid’s life raft.

Things eventually got somewhat better. Most likely this was because the bullies ran out of material; by junior year, pretty much the only people harping about my last name were losers trying to be bullies –you know the type. Moreover, they began to realize that grades meant more than some nerd blowing the curves. They actually went on your permanent record. Therefore, I made a very important gesture towards my fellow students: I started letting people cheat off of me.

One cannot underestimate the amount of goodwill that generates. It may have not been exactly cool to sit near me, but it had its advantages. Then one day I woke up and realized that it became a net statistical neutral to sit near me. And by the time I graduated I actually had friends, some of whom I’ve actually managed to keep in contact with over the years –even through the fog of some truly annoying mental illness.

I could feel that fog starting to descend as high school went on. Strange unconnected rages would overtake me. They would be followed by days of me slumping and sighing dramatically in chairs. By senior year I had managed to get hospitalized for what everyone assumed, based upon surrounding incidents, were psychosomatic stomach pains. A manager at Sisters Chicken and Biscuits even suggested that I was faking the pain to get out of cleaning the walk-in.

Turns out it was real. My diseasing brain had indeed waged an attack on my guts, ulcerating my Meckel’s diverticulum. I assure you that a Meckel’s diverticulum is a completely real thing. Look it up. It’s a fantastically abnormal thing for a 17-year-old to have trouble with. But it is real. On the other hand, there is no such thing as a “net statistical neutral.” That’s complete bullshit.

Back to my brain: After my mom died, my grip on reality become more and more tenuous. My behaviors were becoming more and more erratic; I seem to remember a lot of driving around at night with my headlights off. The best way to convince myself, and others, that my brain was churning along just all peachy-like was to pour myself into my schoolwork and get A’s. No one questions the underpinning of your brain when you’re pulling A’s. If I was being “hypercompetitive, it was only against myself.

So sometime around the midpoint of senior year, I found myself co-valedictorian with another Chris. Much ado was made about how unusual it was to have two people go thru all four years and end up with the same GPA. [Same, out to the second decimal. I was 0.005 ahead when you took it out to a third, but you’d have to be some sort of insane valedictorian to take it that far. And to remember it 30 years later.] Being valedictorian then was such a thing, there were even banquets where teachers and boosters were served alcohol. At one held at the only hotel in Dublin with a decent hall at that time, much was made over the fact that both valedictorians had the same name. But honestly, the percentage of Chris’ in my graduating class was only slightly lower than the percentage of valedictorians in Dublin’s Class of ’15. When introducing us, a district administrator whom I had never met nor seen found the organizing principle of his remarks in our shared names: “Not only do our two Chris’ share a name and a GPA, the both possess remarkable school spirit and have contributed endlessly to the DHS community.

I could hear a snort a few tables over and then a muffled “Yeah, Fay breathed.” That was Mr. Faulk, my CompSci teacher. Mr. Faulk was a very wise and very perceptive man. He also built a degaussing chamber out of a metal recipe file box and a bunch of speaker magnets for when he caught you playing games on class time. Say goodbye to that floppy of Castle Wolfenstein.

He was right; I gave the absolute minimum required of school spirit. I had my reasons Every Friday during the appropriate season we would get out of classes early for football and basketball rallies. When you’re a freshman outcast, sitting alone in a bleacher full of folks all dressed in the same color and chanting the same thing, a pep rally can seem a bit Nuremburg-y. And this feeling wasn’t diminished the week the Shamrocks played Bexley, Columbus’ “Jewish” suburb –yeah, that used to be a thing –when one player got up to the mic to pump up the crowd and exhorted, “Don’t forget your pennies and bagels!” If I had been actually sitting near anybody, they would’ve seen my jaw drop. Apparently it was not only thought that Fay was a Jewish name, they also thought that you could distract a disciplined football team from the “Jewish” suburb by copper and boiled starch. Were the Shamrock faithful fighting off a potential fusillade of potatoes and tiny airplane bottles of whiskey?

But school spirit seemed to really matter to people. These were good people whom I actually liked and remember fondly, but I guess it really rubs people wrong when you don’t (LOUDER NOW!) root for the local sportsball concern. Soon after it was announced that I had tied for Number One Smart Person (Grades Division), Numbers Three and Four trapped me while I was going up the down stairwell by the red lecture hall, one brand of 80s blonde hair above me, another brand of 80s blonde hair below. “So, you’re valedictorian?” asked Three.

“Yeah,” said Four.

“Yep, Co-, with Chris…” I couldn’t even get his last name out before Three blurted out, “At least he has school spirit!”

“You don’t have any!” growled Four, leaning in so close that I had to steady my foot lest I inadvertently tumble the stairs in the approved direction.

“A valedictorian should have school spirit. It’s important,” added Three.

Yes, I invented Wilson The Volleyball. Tom Hanks owes me an apology and I estimate 17.51 million dollars.
Yes, I invented Wilson The Volleyball. Tom Hanks owes me an apology and I estimate 17.51 million dollars.

I should point out that I never went around openly advocating the violent downfall of our Shamrock overlords. In fact, I was pretty excited about the run our football team had had that year. I even agreed to participate in an A-Team skit for a pep rally that fall. But then again, there weren’t a lot that had the necessary crazypants side-eye to play Murdoch. My biggest sin I felt was that I never wore green on the mandated school days. I look awful in kelly green; I need mossy undertones for greens to work.

I tried to stand my ground: “Isn’t that what the Spirit Award is for?” Being valedictorian appealed to me because it wasn’t a popularity contest. The Spirit award was. “Spirit” is something that’s perfect for selection by a committee of the interested. I mean, what’s more intangible and arbitrary than “spirit?”

You know what else is completely arbitrary? It’s a threshold of 4.1 for being valedictorian. I would give anything to have been a (socially awkward) fly on the wall when the committee interested in such things met. I wonder what factors went into rejecting 4.05 and 4.15.

Number Three dropped a parting shot: “It’s like you don’t care about this school.” And they were off. I was filled with dissonant emotions –this time for a reason other than the bipolars. On the one hand, I was sad that my selection had upset them so much. On the other hand, I was angry at being accused of not caring. No, I couldn’t give a rat’s ass if I was a Dublin Shamrock. I could’ve just as easily have been a Worthington Cardinal or an Olentangy Brave had my parents bought any one of those other houses they were considering. Those are all just color schemes. I cared about what went on inside the building.

Yes, some people have wonderful memories of wearing a certain color and rooting for a certain team. But if you ask me what my happiest memories of Dublin High School, what I take with me to this day, I would have to answer that it was the work. I can’t imagine my life without being exposed to my trig teacher Mr. Bringardner’s obsession for accurate note taking. Mrs. Damian taught me that there was value in learning about things that seem quite outside your wheelhouse, and let me discover the beauty of physics through my own lens. She let me spend valuable class time figuring out a better name for a measurement than Newton Meter; I believe we decided Michelob was best. And even though I reviled journaling –and still do –Mr. DeMatteis and Mrs. Hotchkiss encouraged me to write down my thoughts and to treat these thoughts as valid. BTW, if you haven’t enjoyed this piece, go find those two.

And I don’t think I would have these memories if all I had to do was get across an arbitrary line. So what if it’s “hypercompetitive?” Everyone seems to value competition on the sportsball field. I choose to cherish the time I spent competing in the classroom. I’d be lying if I didn’t get a kick out of being the best. However, I was competing against my own self, trying to push myself by learning more and more, figuring out new places to take my brain. Having 121 more valedictorians than Dalmatians strips students of this opportunity. Instead of pushing to be the best, they’re just pushing to cross a line. How is that supposed to be fun?

Oh well, at least I still have my award for Class Clutz. I was also that. I hope to God Dublin doesn’t have 222 of those.

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One thought on “121 More Valedictorians Than Dalmatians

  1. “Instead of pushing to be the best, they’re just pushing to cross a line. How is that supposed to be fun?”

    …In which CRBF Touches Upon ye Problem with Graedes & Divers other Meens of Assessing our Individuall Soules as if Sorting-Out Our Lord’s Bounty, yclept Veggettables.

    I hated school from fifth grade up until the day I walked into the office of my Catholic high school to pick up my diploma (not having been suffered to participate in the graduation ceremony, so noxious was my presence unto THE LORD…something like that, anyway). I hated, hated, hated school, and for those eight years, I would happily take any opportunity to ditch or fake being sick. Anything to avoid going to school. Because of the hate, you see.

    Until college.

    Being an undergrad at UC Santa Cruz back when they were still abjuring grades was the greatest thing that ever happened to me. There were no grades; perforce, there were no GPAs. How sweet it was, years later, jauntily to scrawl “N/A” in the space for GPA on my grad school applications! And how much sweeter to mention it to gob-smacked Berkeley undergrads who regarded the care & nurture of their GPAs with the grim focus typically found only among friars charged with caring for the reliquary of the tibia of St. Pufnstuf of Auchtermuchty.

    When we wrote papers, we were trying to write good papers, papers that would earn good comments from the professors, because that’s all we got from them: comments. It was almost as if what we’d written was somehow worth more than just a letter.

    Nowadays, UCSC only gives ‘Narrative Evaluations’ by request, and grades are mandatory. I don’t know whether I would have made it. I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t have done a double major, and I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t have gotten into Berkeley. And I sure as fuck wouldn’t have ended up as my college’s ‘Senior Speaker’. There were two of us; I haven’t checked to see how many they have now.

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