Jessica: I was valedictorian of my class, and if anyone told me that I didn't get anything out of it and I wasn't involved in my community, wasn't involved in extracurriculars, didn't have a life, I would be, like, what are you talking about? I took classes that I cared about. I took some classes that I didn't care that much about, but I took more so classes that I cared about.
I did everything that I was passionate about in my life, and I had my friends and everything, and I didn't have to sacrifice so much. There are some people who have to work a little bit harder to get there, but you were saying that everyone knows who's smart. Nobody knew I was valedictorian of my class until senior year, when it came out. . . .
I'm told that day when I was on the stage, there were still people who asked, "You're valedictorian of our class? I never knew that." It's like I did work really hard, and if I didn't get recognized, I really would get over it, but at the same time, this whole time, everyone's thinking, she's not smart, she's just, whatever. That one day was the day that I got to stand up there and say how I felt. I got to do a speech. . .
If I was No. 10 and someone else was No. 1, oh, great for them. It wouldn't bother me that they were one and I wasn't because I know that I did whatever I could to be where I am.
Weina: But I think it puts so much pressure on you. You had a unique experience, but there are some people that their parents pressure them, you have to be No. 1, and it's not healthy. I don't think it's healthy.
Jessica: My parents are like that. My parents pressured me a lot. Obviously, if they didn't know that I could do it, then they wouldn't have been pressuring me. But my parents always made sure -- no, you have to get A's, not B's. You don't do anything else. You do that in school, but I took that and I used that to my advantage.
I feel that people can do that if they want to. I feel if you take that pressure and you channel it into something good -- for me I was, like, OK, I'm going to do well in school, but I'm passionate about dance and soccer and things like that.
I used to play soccer when I was younger and I loved it. But I didn't have as much time in high school to work around someone else's schedule. So instead, I became a soccer coach. I found that I liked that better and was able to work with little kids and make it on my own schedule and still do the things that I was passionate about.
So it's like compromising. You just have to find a way to make it work with yourself. And it's how much you're willing to give up and how much you're not.
Weina: I think the reason that Miami-Dade is pushing to get rid of the valedictorian and salutatorian is because in some schools, it's getting crazy. In my school, they told me the story of this guy who went through the air vents [of the school] so that he could get the answers to the AP exams before everyone else did.
Becky: The kid who cheated on the AP exams at my school, there was a huge scandal when I was a junior and it really wasn't the crazy kids. It was kids who wanted to do well and kids who the pressure ate away at them and this was their reaction.
Becky: I think the most traumatic day of my high school career was waiting in line to get my class ring and being surrounded by my peers, my classmates, my friends, and just standing line to get that number from my guidance counselor. For me, that was the most traumatic experience because the buzzing, it was palpable, the tension. . . .It was so much so that I wanted to run home. I didn't even want to get my ring. I wanted to run home.
Weina: So many friendships are destroyed through this process. Once, I learned that I was No. 2 and my friend was [behind me]. Once she learned that, she cut ties with me completely. There is no communication. She hates my guts now.
Jessica: Let me ask you a question. If your friend is going to completely cut ties with you, . . . she's not really your friend. That's how I look at it. . .
I know that there are girls at school who say, "I wish Jessica had a nervous breakdown; she doesn't deserve this." OK, that sucks. All I know is obviously I don't want to be friends with her.
Weina: It's not the system. It's the person.
Jessica: No, it really is a response, though, to this competition. . . . Think about the thought process: Have a nervous breakdown, Jessica, because then you won't be able to do your work, you'll fall, we'll all be able to get ahead.
Becky: I definitely think the world we're in is going to be more competitive than any high school. . . . My boss isn't going to rank me as number No. 20 and number No. 5.3. I don't see it as a constructive way of dealing with students and a constructive way of having students learn. I don't see it as really fostering education. I see it as fostering competition.
Weina: I think that the school system should promote competition to strive for your best but not to compete with one another and backstab one another [so that] there's so much pressure on you that high school is a miserable experience.
Andrew: I really don't know -- Palmetto and Krop are two schools from the county that my school can't stand. And the reason for that is there is so much negative connotation.
I'm so sorry that you guys have had such a horrible experience, but we didn't have that much competition -- except for the No. 1 and No. 2 -- so far as "I wouldn't help you with your homework." I think it's ridiculous.
Andrew, 18, graduated from Hialeah High this year and was 26th in a class of 887 students. He was the Silver Knight winner in the Journalism category. Andrew, who was 14 when his mother died of breast cancer, was honored recently by United Way, in large part because he collected thousands of dollars for the American Cancer Society. He also founded Teens Against Cancer and promoted the Relay for Life fundraiser. Besides being managing editor of his school yearbook, Andrew was president of the National Honor Society, vice president of the Key Club and a member of Quill and Scroll and the Law Club. He is headed to the University of Florida.
Quote: "I don't think there are many that had more fun than me. I feel I was pretty well-rounded."
Rebecca, 19, from Palmetto Bay, graduated last year from Miami Palmetto Senior High, 24th in a class of more than 700. She now attends Bryn Mawr College in Pennsylvania, where a social honor code prohibits students from discussing grades. At Palmetto, she was editor-in-chief of the student newspaper during her senior year. She also wrote a column for Miami Herald Neighbors called "Report Card" that focused on education issues from a student's point of view, and she received an honorable-mention award in the Silver Knights in the Journalism category.
Quote: "One of the huge reasons why I chose Bryn Mawr because it's the anti-high school. It is so anti-Palmetto in that I'm not competing against any of my classmates. Ever. I'm competing against myself until I graduate."
Weina, 18, recently graduated from Dr. Michael M. Krop Senior High School near North Miami Beach as salutatorian in a class of 841. At Harvard this fall, she plans to pursue her interests in computer science, medicine and business. Weina, who lives in the North Miami Beach area, is a 2007 Growing UP CEO Winner. She is also a Silver Knight winner in the New Media category.
When she was 10, she immigrated to the United States with her parents from Haiti. At age 16, she started a podcast-hosting company called Switchpod.com, and she sold it a year later to a public software firm, Wizzard Software Corp., for $200,000. She was appointed chief executive officer of Switchpod.com, managing the company and working 20 hours a week, while still in high school.
Quote: "Competition is good, but sometimes it gets bad. Sometimes it makes you forget the more important things in life."
Jessica, 18, of Davie was valedictorian of her class of 611 at Cooper City High School this year and is headed to the University of Pennsylvania Wharton School, where she plans to study business before becoming a surgeon. Her honors include winning the Silver Knight in General Scholarship and the U.S. Marine Corps Scholastic Excellence Award.
Quotes: "I'm an overachiever and so I always try to set my goals as high as possible. And then if I don't get all the way there, at least I feel like I've pushed myself further . . . I just wanted to do good in school, and I ended up doing it, I guess." "On the graduation day, when I was standing up there, I could see how proud my parents were in the front row, and I think that was the best moment for me."
'WE LOOK AT EVERYTHING'
Earning top spot in a high school class certainly helps in life, but it's not an automatic ticket to the most selective universities.
Princeton University, top-ranked by U.S. News & World Report this year, declined to admit more than four in five valedictorians who applied last year. That's still better odds then the general acceptance rate, where fewer than one in 10 applicants gets an welcome letter.
"It's incredibly competitive, " said Janet Lavin Rapelye, Princeton's dean of admissions. "Being a valedictorian or salutatorian is not enough to separate anyone in our pool. We look at everything."
Rapelye said the Princeton admissions officers look chiefly at whether applicants have chosen the most challenging courses available at their school -- and whether they have been successful. Sometimes, that overlaps with valedictorian status.
"Almost twice the rate of everyone else -- that's the good news, " she said.
But? "When we flip it around, we didn't admit 82 percent of the valedictorians."
-- NOAH BIERMAN (nbierman@MiamiHerald.com)