And then another hurdle. Step up in front of classmates and deliver the speech of a lifetime. A young lifetime, to be sure, but still. There’s pressure to find words to put the final year of school in context for your fellow graduates. To craft a message that will resonate, reassure, maybe even inspire, as life after high school looms.
That’s difficult enough in a normal year. But this year, when school often didn’t feel like school at all, when classmates and teachers were mostly thumbnail images on a flickering screen, when faces and emotions were masked and the country shrouded in disease, death and discord, finding the words to make sense of it all and find shards of light and purpose has been all the more challenging.
The word valedictorian comes from the Latin vale dicere or “to say farewell.” So it is a goodbye speech, but also a “Look at what we’ve done” speech. And what seniors have done this year has never been done before. From start to finish, this school year has been under a cloud. At some schools, the doors never opened and learning took place not in thousands of classrooms but in millions of bedrooms and kitchens, on back porches and in parking lots or wherever the WiFi signal was strongest.
For those lucky enough to have classes in-person, the experience was masked and distanced, tracked and tested, and always a small coronavirus outbreak away from everyone being sent home. Anxiety was a constant, especially for administrators and staff and teachers — God bless the teachers — but also the students who didn’t want to bring covid-19 home to their parents and grandparents, who didn’t want to be part of worsening the worst health crisis of their lives.
So, yes, vale dicere to all that. Goodbye and good riddance. But also . . . look at what they’ve done.
As uncertainty swirled around them, they stayed focused. They adapted their learning. They finished their assignments. They passed their tests. They supported one another. They gutted and gritted it out even when the end seemed out of reach.
“I’ve witnessed a lot of burnout in my school, inside and outside of the classes, just because of how this environment has kind of exhausted a lot of people,” said Grayson Catlett, who is graduating at the top of his class at Central High School in Chattanooga, Tenn.
But the difficulties of learning during the pandemic and witnessing and experiencing the racial and political tumult the country has endured over the past year has had another effect as well, Catlett said. It has made him and his classmates more resilient, and he plans to reflect on that in his speech.
“We’ve been through a lot and just graduating high school in general this year is rewarding,” said Catlett, who will study political science at the University of Pennsylvania. He plans to end his speech saying, “If this is all the stuff that we could overcome, I’m finding it hard to imagine what we can’t.”
In addition to building resilience, the past year has provided context and opportunities for reflection for Catlett and his cohort of seniors throughout the country. It has made them think more, they say, about the world and their place in it. And their purpose in it.
For Lana Lubecke, valedictorian at Kalani High School in Honolulu, the pandemic and the political and social turmoil of the past year gave her a stronger sense of what she wanted to do.
“Before the pandemic, I felt like I was stretched really thin,” Lubecke said. “And when basically everything was canceled, I kind of got the time to sit back and be like, what do I care about? What activities do I want to prioritize? What are the most meaningful and how do I think I can make the most impact? And I think I learned a lot.’
With time to step back and assess, Lubecke said she realized she wanted to become more civically engaged in her community. She has spent part of the past year advocating for education equity and making better educational opportunities available for more students.
Being a high school valedictorian isn’t a sure ticket to fame and fortune, but some have become famous and fortunate. Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor was first in her high school class. Same with sociologist and civil rights activist W.E.B. Du Bois and actress Natalie Portman. “Weird Al” Yankovic too. Jeff Bezos, who owns The Washington Post and many other things, was valedictorian at Miami Palmetto Senior High in 1982 and told the Miami Herald at the time that he wanted to “build space hotels, amusement parks, yachts and colonies for 2 or 3 million people orbiting around the Earth.”
Valedictorians are encouraged to think big and bright. With their speeches, they are expected to summon optimism and tap into an idealistic vision for the future. It’s a final pep talk for classmates, many of whom will never see one another again once their mortarboards are tossed in the air.
But a rosy outlook can be hard to summon for seniors who have come of age in the past decade. The pandemic is only the latest in a parade of events that have disharmonized their young lives.
“I wonder if adults, you know, realize that people my age were 13 and 14 during the 2016 election?” said Carmelina Komyatte, a senior and the valedictorian at Bishop Noll Institute in Hammond, Ind. “Like, I remember I was 13 years old watching the ’Access Hollywood tape’ of Donald Trump, you know, admitting to sexually assaulting women. . . . And I was 14 for Charlottesville, and I was a freshman for the Parkland shooting. So, I think no one can say that our generation is idealistic about politics. We’re definitely not.”
But if not idealistic, they are determined. Komyatte, who will attend the University of Notre Dame in the fall, said her message to her classmates is to not be discouraged or defeated by the challenges they have faced. She and her cohorts, she said, need to go into the next chapter of their lives “with purpose and with the intention to help others and to make an impact and to use your gifts and your opportunities and your resources, you know, to do all the good that you can do.”
Many school districts have ended the practice of designating a student as valedictorian. Competition for the top spot had become unhealthy, they said. Students sued if they weren’t named valedictorian or if they had to share the title. Yes, that really happened. Schools didn’t need the headache. So goodbye to all that, too. But there is a reward for those schools that have continued to award the top student and allot five minutes for a farewell speech. There is wisdom to be gleaned from these young minds and perspective beyond their years and the accolades they’ve accumulated.
“Being the valedictorian, like, that’s not that’s all I am as a person,” said Ben Barnes, a senior at Energy Institute High School in Houston who will attend the University of Virginia this fall. “And even if someone is at the bottom of their class, that’s not all they are as a person. There’s so much more to people than what they’re doing after high school.”
In interviews with The Washington Post, 10 valedictorians from high schools across the country discussed their path to the top spot and shared their thoughts on the challenges of the past year and what they plan to say to their fellow seniors at graduation.
Energy Institute High School in Houston.
Being valedictorian was never a goal for Ben Barnes.
“It’s a huge honor, of course. And I’m really proud, but I kind of have to keep it in perspective, because I really have been blessed in way that a lot of people haven’t been fortunate enough to have been blessed.”
Barnes credits his family, teachers, friends and God for his accomplishments. In his speech, he plans to emphasize that where you graduate in your class isn’t a defining characteristic.
“As much as it has been drilled into our heads that grades and test scores and things like that are the most important measure of the person, I kind of want to challenge that stance. . . . There’s so much more to people than what they’re doing after high school or their SAT test scores. And I just want to convey that and, I guess, encourage people in that way.”
He will attend the University of Virginia.
Central High School in Chattanooga, Tenn.
Grayson Catlett says he hopes his generation brings more honesty to politics and to debates about issues. He has seen how the past year has deepened divides and torn communities apart. He plans to address the discord and the role his fellow graduates might have in mending rifts.
“In my speech, I’m going to be bringing up how, kind of, all of these adversities have helped my class build resilience. Because there’s just been so much going on, from the pandemic to protests and everything else that, you know, it’s kind of setting our expectations for the world that’s lying ahead of us.”
He will attend the University of Pennsylvania.
International High School at Langley Park in Bladensburg, Md.
When Susana Chavez moved from Guatemala three years ago to live with her brother in Maryland, she didn’t even realize she would be able to attend high school. She was 16, and her goal was to get a job. But her mother and brother encouraged her to go to school, and on June 1, she’ll graduate as the valedictorian.
During her first two years in high school, Chavez spent eight to 10 hours a day on weekends cleaning houses and landscaping. Now, she’s a clerk in a shop. She’s used to hard work. She has been doing it since she was 6, when she helped her mother plant crops, take care of farm animals and collect wood to sell. One day, she wants to return to Guatemala to make sure impoverished kids there have a better life.
“I know that my mom, she will be proud of me, because my mom, she can’t even write and read. She told me, if you go to school, it’s an opportunity for you to learn to do something different. She said, ’Do something different if you don’t want to work hard as me.’ So I was like, ’yeah, I will.’ ”
Chavez will attend Prince George’s Community College.
East Early College High School in Houston.
Johnny Cortez will attend Duke University this fall to study computer science and business. His parents came to Texas from Mexico when they were in their teens and Cortez, the youngest of seven children, will be the first in his family to attend college out of state.
“Coming from a big family of immigrants and going to school on a full ride, that’s a big deal for us,” he said. Being valedictorian was also a big deal and something he wanted throughout school.
“Honestly, it’s just great, because I feel like I’m in a position where, you know, a lot of people are kind of looking at me for an example,” Cortez said. “And I want to represent our school and try to be the best example for others.”
He’s worried about the lingering effects of the pandemic, but he is most concerned about this country’s justice system.
“The way the justice system works, I think there’s so many flaws in it. You know, the U.S. has one of the largest prison populations of any country, despite being only 5 percent of the world’s population. I think there needs to be a huge reform of how the prison system works and with policing. I don’t think the iron fist should be the solution to all our problems. And I don’t think we should just throw everybody in jail.”
He will attend Duke University.
Diana Flores Valdivia
Chula Vista High School in Chula Vista, Calif.
Diana Flores Valdivia came to Southern California from Mexico with her sister and parents in 2016 when she was 13. She spoke English but not well, and she took extra classes to become fluent. Her mother works in a hotel, and her father drives for Uber. What they want most for her, Flores Valdivia said, is an opportunity.
Five years after coming to America, Flores Valdivia is graduating from Chula Vista High School in Chula Vista, Calif., at the top of her class of 500 or so students. She knows what that means to her parents. And she knows what she wants to say to her fellow graduates.
“During these hard times, especially with the racial division, me graduating and being valedictorian, I feel proud because I feel like I’m representing my community,” Flores Valdivia said. “And I’m showing that Mexicans and Latinos, we come here for a better life, and we do not come here to steal but rather to contribute to this country. We work hard and we’re honest. And that’s what I want to show with my accomplishments. I also want to inspire people in my community and let them know that if I can do it, they can do it. And if anything, our background only makes us stronger.”
She will attend Cornell University.
Bishop Noll Institute in Hammond, Ind.
It’s not a stretch to say that being valedictorian runs in Carmelina Komyatte’s family. Her older brothers were also valedictorians, making this the third year in a row that a Komyatte was the top student at Bishop Noll Institute.
Following a year where the country has been engulfed by the pandemic, protests over racial injustice and a bitter election, Komyatte says she wants to offer words of support to her classmates as they move from the small universe of their high school to the world beyond.
“I think it’s important we don’t get discouraged because of everything that’s happened and know that it is our job and our responsibility to create the world we want to live in and to demand better from society and from the world. You have to demand the things that you want to see. Demand respect and dignity and equal treatment and equal opportunities for people.”
She will attend the University of Notre Dame.
Kalani High School in Honolulu.
As high school seniors graduate at what everyone hopes is the end of the pandemic, Lana Lubecke says she is feeling excited about the future.
“I’m a little nervous, but I’m optimistic right now that with the vaccine rollout, hopefully there’ll be some sense of normalcy,” she said. “And I hope that all the discussions that have been raised during the pandemic about political polarization and about racism in this country, I hope that that’s kind of opened doors to make more real change in the near future.”
Her message to her fellow graduates is “to find something that motivates you and do something about it. Even if what you do doesn’t work out, at least you’ll learn something and you’ll end up in this place where you’re ready to try again or try something new.”
She will attend the California Institute of Technology.
Emery High School in Castle Dale, Utah.
In his rural Utah high school, Casen Miller has been able to attend school masked but in person for almost his entire senior year. He’s grateful for that. But the year has sometimes been a struggle, and Miller says the pandemic and politics have put America to a test.
“We’re just not a very peaceful country right now,” said Miller. “There’s a lot of like fighting going on, disagreeing opinions, riots, outbreaks, all that kind of stuff.”
But Miller is confident the country can heal.
“I think for the next couple of years it’ll be hard, because it’s so divided right now,” he said. “But I feel like in the future, we will be able to find a way to come together.”
In his speech to his fellow graduates, Miller wants to talk about how everyone’s journey is different.
“I’m definitely going to address how not everyone is going to take the same path,” Miller said. “Some people are just going to graduate high school, go straight to the workforce. Some people are going to go all the way through college. Some are going to go to college and realize it’s not for them. But we don’t all have to take the same path to be successful.”
He will attend Utah State University.
Albany High School in Albany, N.Y.
For Onovughakpor Otitigbe-Dangerfield, being valedictorian wasn’t just a personal achievement, it was a historic one. The senior at Albany High School in Albany, N.Y., became the first Black valedictorian in the school’s 152-year history. Next month, she’ll graduate at the top of her class of more than 600 students.
She wants to highlight how the support of family, mentors and friends is essential to anyone’s success.
“There’s an African proverb that if you want to go fast, go alone. But if you want to go far, go together. And that’s really like the most perfect way I could put my experience. This honor is definitely a reflection of the constant support that I’ve had from family, from teachers, my guidance counselors, coaches, friends, all of that,” Otitigbe-Dangerfield said. “And I think sometimes, you don’t learn early enough how important it is to develop a cohort of allies of people in your corner that can offer you a perspective that you don’t see yourself and then also advocate for you and let you know of opportunities. Because I honestly didn’t do this alone at all.”
She will attend Harvard University.
Livingston High School in Livingston, N.J.
For Rosa Xia, the entire school year has been virtual. In many ways, Xia said senior year left her feeling disconnected, and it made her sad to not be able to spend more quality time with her friends or have meaningful conversations in person. But, she said, “I’ve kind of accepted that that’s just how it is.”
Speaking at graduation will be the first time since March 2020 that she will see most of her fellow seniors. And in many cases, it will be the last time. She has been trying to not think too much about her valedictory speech.
“I really don’t like speaking in front of people that much,” she said, laughing. Still, she has an idea of what she wants to convey.
“We suffered through a lot this year because of the pandemic. And I guess we’re stronger than we think we are. Even when we were all remote, everyone put a lot of effort into trying to stay engaged and trying to make classes engaging and trying to relate to each other.”
She will attend Cornell University.
Photo editing by Mark Miller. Copy editing by Melissa Ngo. Design by J.C. Reed.