Calculating Parents And Gracious Losers

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.

15 thoughts on “Calculating Parents And Gracious Losers

  1. Elpey P.

    In the “related stories” links at the bottom of this NYT attempt to gin up hatred is a heroic profile of a southern white girl who went to court to fight her school when she felt they had robbed her of valedictorian status:

    “The competition over such accolades can be an intense, even ruthless, zero-sum game. And in the fight to be valedictorian, there is more at stake than just bragging rights.”

    Yet of course people read the story here and are led by the nose to react in completely the opposite manner, with prominent activists on twitter talking about how violence should be committed against the students and families who did the same thing in this case. Imagine the implications of that response if the identities were flipped. A lot of people really have an appreciation for Jim Crow attitudes – including the “zero sum” outcomes – if they approve of the heirarchy.

    1. Rengit

      The growing number of people who are casually endorsing violence (and not just a slap to the face) over disagreements, particularly when race is invoked as an element of the disagreement or as the tiebreaker, is concerning.

  2. orthodoc

    The NY Times has had a interest in reporting the battles for high school honors for a long time. In 2003, it ran an article about the fight in Moorestown, N.J over the naming of the valedictorian—then it was not about the weighting of GPA, but whether students who had accommodations for their testing should be treated differently. A student with a disability was initially named (only) co-valedictorian and then “successfully” won a lawsuit to be given the crown exclusively. The air quotes are needed as the added attention and acrimony lead to the discovery of her plagiarism (in a non-school local paper) and revocation of her admission to Harvard. [The Wikipedia entry “Hornstine v. Township of Moorestown” tells the tale.] Indeed, for many parents, making sure their kids get what they believe they deserve is a big deal –but parents can often misapprehend things. I hope none of the kids here get similarly burned.

    1. SHG Post author

      Those were simpler Times, before they appreciated that everything was systemic racism. And burning kids was their duty.

  3. Mike

    The disappointment was exacerbated by the reality show type big public reveal. I have to think that in past years there were students who had worked hard for years in an attempt to be at the top of the class who were crushed in a public situation when the announcement was made.

    The weighted criteria does seem a good way of determining the top spot honors. But moving the goalposts at the end is always going to hurt and disappoint someone.

    Losing graciously sounds good in abstract, but if you lose due to a last-minute change I can understand the students and parents being upset. Being a valedictorian can affect college admissions and financial aid. So for some families, it’s more to them than just another medal or bragging rights on social media.

  4. Hunting Guy

    I never understood the significance of valedictorian or salutatorian for HS.

    But I’m a HS dropout so my opinion doesn’t count.

    On the other hand, valedictorian, salutatorian and the goat count big time in the service academies, for career paths and duty assignments.

      1. ly

        It’s still stupid. There are people who still believe the world is flat, in the age of air travel and spaceflight and that Trump won the election. No matter how hard they believe they are still stupid.

  5. MGould

    Not to toot my own horn, but when in high school I selflessly avoided giving my parents the difficult choice to go to court over such issues by being nowhere near valedictorian or salutatorian.


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