The superintendent of West Point schools had a math problem. The school policy, as set forth in its handbook and applied in the past, was that the valedictorian and salutatorian were determined by unweighted grade point average, meaning straight grades without any consideration of the difficulty of courses. It’s a dumb way to do things, but it was the method West Point used. Except for this year.
After talking with the white parents, Mr. McDonald, who is Black, concluded that the handbook and tradition backed them up: In the school system, class rank has been calculated by unweighted grade point average, not Q.P.A., which would have made the two white students the honorees.
A school counselor used the wrong method of determining who would be val and sal, which resulted in the honors going to two other students.
At first, it seemed a joyous occasion. There was an audible gasp in the room, then boisterous cheering and applause when the announcement was made: Ikeria Washington and Layla Temple had been named 2021 valedictorian and salutatorian for West Point High School.
At this point, there are a few ways to look at this fiasco. The parents of the students who didn’t get val and sal could have used this as a teachable moment about graciousness in defeat or the transitory concerns of such honors. But if you expected that to be their direction, you don’t know parents. Some will see the bigger opportunity, but most will see only that the prize was stolen from their baby. If a mother is willing to kill over making the cheerleading squad, why would the parents of students who expected to be named val and sal walk away quietly?
In Mississippi, where some public schools once defied federal orders to admit Black students and issues of educational equity are still raw, who gets honored and how can dredge up painful questions that are impossible to disentangle from the state’s racial history. In the past five years, Black women in Cleveland, Miss., about 150 miles away, have twice filed federal lawsuits alleging they had been cheated in their school’s selection of valedictorian and salutatorian.
What the painful history of Mississippi has to do with calculating students’ GPA is one of those mysteries that requires a job at the New York Times to understand, but that black women have twice sued because they felt cheated is pretty much the point here. While suing over the selection of val and sal might seem extreme, can you fault the two black women for doing something if they believed they were cheated out of the honor they earned?
Sure, not every parent or student would feel compelled to take action, even if they were in the right. But that’s a call a parent and student have to make, and the fact that you or I wouldn’t do so isn’t particularly relevant to their decision. For many parents, making sure their kids get what they believe they deserve is a big deal, huge, and they will fight for their children. They would do so because it’s their children. When it comes to your children, it changes everything.
But the crux of this fight isn’t about the better practice of determining who wins val and sal based on weighted GPA, or what they call QPA, quality point average. Much as it makes infinitely more sense to use QPA, that wasn’t the way the school handbook said it was done. Had the roles been reversed, and the policy provided that QPA be used but the school counselor charged with running the numbers erroneously used unweighted GPA resulting in a reversal of the scenario, would it have been wrong for the “losers” to complain and demand the proper policy be applied?
Yet, the honors went to two black women instead of the white alternates, and that became the story instead of best methods of calculating honors, the value of learning to take a loss gracefully or the extremes to which parents will go over transitory honors. The implication was that the reaction of the parents arose not because their lil darlings were cheated, but because they were cheated by black students. How dare a white student lose to a black student?
In the end, the school decided to have co-valedictorians and co-salutatorians, although there are significant questions about whether and how the original choices learned of the superintendent’s determination. It was a split-the-baby-type resolution, and likely the best the superintendent could have done under the circumstances, although it appears that it should have been handled better.
But the fact that this problem with calculation turned into a Mississippi Burning story in the New York Times rather than a story of a school screwing up and students bearing the brunt of its mistake presents a different dilemma for all these students, parents and the school. While the race of the students had nothing to do with either the cause of the problem, the grievance or the resolution, it became story because it existed and there is no story involving people of different races where race does not because the story.
If all the students involved here were of the same race, nothing that happened would have been any different except that it probably wouldn’t have made the New York Times and certainly wouldn’t have been framed as a racial incident. Had the races of the students been reversed, this would have been a story about how the honor of being named val and sal was stolen from two black students. Would anyone suggest that the two black students should have learned to be gracious losers if the honor was stolen from them?
If race becomes the crucial aspect of every situation where people of different races are involved, even if race had nothing to do with the problem, does anything else matter? If not, then there isn’t much point in concerning ourselves with such trivialities as facts and details, as they fade into the background, just like the honor of being high school valedictorian when you show up at college where nobody cares.