High school is hell.
In the wake of the Columbine shootings, memories of high school's peculiar institutional hells keep surfacing across the country, across class lines: memories of cutthroat cliques, of ruthless climbers, of clawing for credentials.
And that's just the adults.
This Saturday, the Kiowa High School class of 1999--all 22 members--will gather in the school gymnasium for graduation ceremonies. Four students will address the crowd; because there are two salutatorians and two co-valedictorians, their speeches are limited to five minutes each.
But most of the talking will be behind the scenes, anyway. Talk of how adults juggled the rules, allowing a last-minute change that made the ceremony more "inclusive," school officials insist--but also stretched it to include one student who just happens to be the daughter of a school-board member.
The current handbook of Kiowa School District C-2, a modest publication handed out to students and parents alike, includes this mission statement adopted in 1996: "to graduate competitive, well-rounded, active citizens and to empower individual potential through cooperative efforts of school, family and community."
Joanne Abbie, mother of senior Tara and a recent Kiowa High employee, isn't feeling very cooperative right now. An avidly active parent in her daughter's education--she home-schooled Tara at their Elbert County home up to seventh grade, when she enrolled her in the nearby Kiowa school system where she worked--she'd studied the handbook closely. She knew by heart the words under the heading "Valedictorian," located on page 24 right between "Truancy" and "Vehicle Rules":
"A valedictorian (highest GPA) and salutatorian (second highest GPA) will be determined from the senior class at the end of the year."
Joanne knew how hard Tara had worked, and she thought her daughter had the honor clinched. Even in her senior year, and already accepted to the University of Colorado, Tara wasn't slacking off: She was taking advanced math and science classes not because she needed them for graduation (she didn't), not because they'd bring up her overall GPA (although they would inch her from 3.979 to 3.98), but because they'd help her in college, where she planned to enroll in the pre-nursing program.
In the meantime, Tara was keeping up with her outside activities, too. She tried track one season, and volleyball and band; she was a cheerleader three years. But her favorite activities have always been art ("I wish they'd put more importance on it," she says, "and band and choir, not just sports") and Matchwits, an academic quiz-game challenge between high schools. (Kiowa took sixth in the Black Forest league this year.)
Although some schools include subjective criteria such as extracurricular involvements when determining class valedictorian, Kiowa does not. In fact, after two years of discussion and research, the school board had just proposed a few modest changes that superintendent Greg Kruthaupt outlined in a memo following the February board meeting: "Speaking of graduation, we will recognize students with the highest GPA now to the nearest tenth of a point for Valedictorian and Salutatorian. We will also provide an honors diploma for all students earning a 3.5 GPA or better during their high school career. This will widen the 'Winners' Circle' and increase scholarship opportunities for well-deserving students. See the attachment for details." That attachment noted that the new valedictorian criteria--which included the stipulation that the "student must be of high moral character...a requirement communicated to students at the beginning of their high school career with Kiowa Schools," as well as the GPA point change--would begin with the class of 2000.
So in March, when Tara was called into the principal's office with another student, Amber Terrell, and told that the two would be co-valedictorians of the class of 1999, she assumed that their GPAs were identical. After all, the year before, the school had had co-valedictorians, when the GPA difference between the two was too tiny to measure, and "we'd been close all through high school," Tara remembers. But then an outraged teacher told Tara that she was really the top student in the class and that Amber had a lower GPA.
Without warning, the rules had been changed.
"I think they should have made the policy change well-known instead of just springing it on me," says Tara. "But I didn't really care, because I'm not much for public speaking."
Her mother is. And her mother cared.
By the April board meeting, Joanne Abbie had done her homework. She'd looked through all the meeting minutes, reread the handbook, documented that in the past fifty years, the only time Kiowa High honored co-valedictorians was when the students' GPAs were exactly the same. Since the difference between her daughter's GPA and Amber's was at least .02, she said, the only possible explanation was that Amber boasted an additional credential: Her father is on the school board.
Hearing this charge, superintendent Kruthaupt sighs. "As a parent, she might feel that way," he says carefully, "but that was not our intent. The irony is that we have many children of boardmembers coming up in the next three years." That's the way things are in a small town, he says--the one point on which he and Joanne Abbie agree.
So why switch the rules this year rather than in 2000, as proposed as recently as February? "Basically, we made the change this year because we didn't see any benefit in delaying the change," he explains, "and it would accomplish what we intended, to further recognize student achievement." Along with getting more students on the stage at graduation, he points out that expanding the valedictorian program also nets more scholarship possibilities; both Western State and Rangely Community College give full rides to Kiowa High's top student and would double their offers for dueling valedictorians.
Besides, change is good, judging from the Confucius quote Kruthaupt attached to his February memo: "They must often change who would be constant in happiness or wisdom." Still, he concedes, had school officials done a better job of communicating, everyone might be happier.
They're certainly wiser. "It's a study in small-town politics," says Joanne Abbie.
"Everyone knows my mom has this knack for sharing her opinion," says Tara, "yet they did it anyway. My mom didn't make it personal. But after the April meeting, Amber's mom called and ripped her up one side and down the other, and her father said he'd see my mom in court."
But first they'll be seeing each other on the court: in the gymnasium, at graduation this Saturday. In a small town, this is a big event, and the place should be packed for the ceremony and speeches by two salutatorians (a move made possible by doubling top honors) and two co-valedictorians--unless somehow things get changed again at this week's board meeting, and no one's holding her breath for that.
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Tara's working on her speech right now. "Everyone says you should use examples, but I just think I want to make it short and simple," she says--the way her life hasn't been for the past two months. "I want to talk about being an example for the generations that follow you, being role models, about how morals are important, about valuing your friends, about never giving up on your goals."
She doesn't plan to talk about sudden shifts in the goal line, or about matters of principal rather than principle. "Believe me, I would like to get into a larger environment," she says. "If you don't have the right last name, you don't have the upper hand."
There's a lesson in that.