What makes valedictorians tick?
June 29, 2010 - Bill Ackerbauer
If you've been wondering why I've shirked my blog duties for the last couple of weeks, see today's paper for your answer. My feature story headlined "Catching up with 2000's valedictorians" is the culmination of a project I cooked up ten years ago. At that time, the Year 2000 seemed like a profound moment in history -- we were on the threshold of the 21st century -- so I thought it would be cool to publish a series of stories about that year's high school valedictorians.
And I thought it would be interesting to track their progress over the years and publish a "where are they now?" sort of story at some point down the road. Admittedly, at that time I didn't imagine that I would be the one to track them all down and interview them. I left the Leader in 2002 and went to work for another paper for about five years. Partly because my academic aspirations took me on a detour through grad school, I came back to work here in 2007. So this spring, I found myself in a position to catch up with the class of 2000's top local students and write about their adventures and accomplishments.
And an accomplished group it is. A who's-who of "cum laudes," they all have or are working on advanced degrees, several are in medical careers, and two have been inspired by their religious beliefs to pursue lives dedicated to the service of others.
I imagine each must have a roaring furnace of self-motivation where the rest of us mortals have the occasional flicker or spark. Some of the seven seem like uberstudents who push themselves toward perfection. Others in the group downplay their personal drive and even their talents, saying they don't take themselves too seriously.
What makes valedictorians tick? What makes any highly motivated and highly accomplished person tick? I'd been curious about this for some time even before we did the series on the top students of the class of 2000. When I was in my teens and early twenties, my best friend was the valedictorian of his class at Johnstown High School. He had a sharp mind and a wicked sense of humor, and he had every reason to expect a successful career in the sciences. But somewhere along the line, his motivation and his confidence faltered. He dropped out of college and joined the army. He struggled with alcoholism and depression, and less than 10 years after giving his triumphant valedictory speech at Knox Field, he was dead. It was a tragic turn of events for his family and friends and for the community that raised him.
So, as you can see, when I envisioned this project, my curiosity about the inner workings of valedictorians was somewhat morbid. My friend isn't the only person to have excelled in youth but later stumbled on the road to success. Other top students from Johnstown High School include a football star/honor student whose reputation as lawyer was tarnished recently, when he was convicted of misconduct for having an illicit relationship with a client. Then there's a salutatorian who is serving time in a Federal prison in New Jersey for committing wire fraud. I hasten to add that these are just a few examples with which I happen to be familiar. I don't mean to suggest that top students from my alma mater have any more of a tendency to go astray than those from any other school. And on the positive side of the scorecard, Johnstown boasts several valedictorians who have made it proud, such as Christine Kinnier, the surgeon mentioned in today's story, along with Joe Campana, a college professor and published poet whose work I've mentioned before in this blog. And the JHS alumnus who needs no introduction is Harry Wilson, the Republican Party's candidate for New York state comptroller.
So what does make valedictorians tick? What makes them strive for superlative acheivements rather than the lesser satisfactions with which most of us are content? I now know a little more about this subject than I did ten years ago, but I still can't pin it down. Perhaps I'll check in with the class of 2000 again in 2020, and all my questions will be answered.