When Justin Schuster sat down to pen his valedictory address to Gilman School’s class of 2011, the administration gave him very loose guidelines:  address the occasion and keep it under ten minutes. Even so, Schuster says with a laugh, “I still didn’t really listen to them.” Instead of speaking in airy generalities, Schuster spent his ten minutes “talking about what made my class unique. I wanted to make it personal, rather than just reflect on the occasion.”  (Read Justin’s speech in Students Speak on the Baltimore Fishbowl Schools page.) 

Justin had the right idea. In the competitive rush of senior year, it can be easy to forget that valedictorians are people too, with their own quirks, aspirations, strengths, and weaknesses. And increasingly, the traditional valedictorian is being phased out, or revamped to honor many students, instead of just one. So what does it take make it to the top of the class in today’s uber-competitive high school environment?  To that end, we caught up with Justin and a few other local graduates who rank first in their class and got them to talk about their high school experiences, their plans for next year, and what they do in their free time (if they have any). 

Justin Schuster has attended Gilman School since sixth grade (before that, he attended Ft. Garrison Elementary, a public school in the Owings Mills/Pikesville area), and deems it “a phenomenal place — and I promise Gilman isn’t pressuring me to say that!” He’ll attend Yale in the fall, where he hopes to double-major in political science and Near Eastern Studies. If all goes according to plan, he’ll continue his coursework in Arabic and end up doing something related to politics or law. “I used to want to run for office,” he says, “But lately I’m thinking State Department, CIA, something in intelligence, Assistant U.S. Attorney…” This interest in politics is no recent whim; Schuster spends summers working with a political consulting firm in Bel Air, interacting with politicians on a day-to-day basis; he also had an internship with Baltimore City’s state’s attorney, and worked on a Congressional campaign.

Dana Katzenelson, a graduate of Baltimore Polytechnic Institute who will be attending Harvard in the fall, has the whole valedictorian thing in perspective. When asked how her life might’ve been different had she not ended up at the top of her class, she pauses then says, “Well, then I wouldn’t have to write a speech right now.” Not that the speech should be much of a problem for her; Katzenelson has run for student office a few times, and has been otherwise active in the school’s decision-making processes. “There’s a lot of opportunity at Poly for people who are looking for it,” she notes — two examples being the school’s new strategic plan and its search for a new principal, both endeavors that Katzenelson participated in.

David Goodman has been at Boys’ Latin since kindergarten, and credits the school’s close-knit, supportive community for his scholastic success: “I had a serious accident in lower school and it was because of the help and support of the students and the faculty that I was able to make a full recovery and become the student I am today,” he writes in an email. “The class of 2011 was an especially close group of 71 students and [we] have always had each other’s backs.” Goodman kept busy in school taking college-level math courses like linear algebra and multivariate calculus; editing the school newspaper; and playing on the varsity soccer and baseball teams.  He’ll be another Baltimore-area valedictorian at Yale in the fall, where he plans to study math and economics.

While these students may be thriving, the valedictorian is something of an endangered species at highly competitive schools in some parts of the country — and Baltimore is no exception. Bryn Mawr, McDonough, Roland Park Country School, Friends and the Park School don’t recognize valedictorians in the traditional sense. “We honor students for academic achievement in all disciplines,” notes Nancy Mugele of Roland Park Country School, pointing out that the school awards more than 30 academic awards to its students. Why sidestep this traditional honor? For one, competition over class rank can lead to pressure and competition between classmates, and the final verdict often comes down to a fraction of a percentage point. Howard County schools don’t recognize a valedictorian, and Montgomery County schools don’t put class ranks on college transcripts.

Alas, eliminating the valedictorian doesn’t necessarily make students at these schools (or their parents) any aware of who got the best grades. For example, while Bryn Mawr doesn’t recognize a valedictorian, they do give a special award (the College Scholarship Prize) to the senior with the highest cumulative GPA. Which begs the question — if everyone knows who the de fact valedictorian is, why not just have a valedictorian?

Nationwide, other school districts are taking a different tack — honoring multiple valedictorians for the same graduating class. One Colorado district boasted a total of 94 valedictorians at its 8 high schools, all of whom had a GPA over 4.0, while a high school in the suburbs of Houston recognized 30 valedictorians — or 6.5 percent of its graduating seniors. Perhaps these kids are all so brilliant that it’s impossible to distinguish between them — or perhaps other forces are at work? “It’s honor inflation,” Chris Healy, associate professor at Furman University, told the New York Times

The valedictorians we spoke to all seemed to have a good sense of perspective about the honor. For one, they recognize that they weren’t alone in their academic achievement. As Goodman notes, “the top portion of my class [all] challenged themselves academically. For us, there were many long nights working on AP and honors assignments….[We] pushed each other to work hard and I share this honor with them.” Will being valedictorian have a big impact on Katz-Nelson’s future? “Not really,” she predicts. “It’s not as significant as other people think. It just means I focussed on getting good grades more than other people did.”  Schuster agrees:  “Quite frankly, I think it’s a title and nothing more than that.” What’s important to him is not so much the title itself as the skills that got him there:  his work ethic, and his ability to organize his time. “I didn’t stay in on Friday and Saturday nights, cramming over SAT books. I just did my homework.”

While these students have plenty to be proud of, there’s something a little wistful about the valedictory moment, as well. After all, “valedictorian” comes from the Latin for “farewell sayer,” and it’s true that these students are leaving a lot behind. But judging from what they’ve accomplished so far, the future should be pretty exciting, too.