I have a bit of an ax to grind today. Today marks twenty-one years since one of the more painful moments of my life, one that I had no control over. It was the Honors Convocation put on by Mount Vernon High School, the night before our last official day of high school before graduation and going off to college. The previous few months before this event had become a series of what I now call “parting shots” from my former classmates, my guidance counselor, and as I’ve documented here in detail, the Science Department chair at the very last moment of my last day at MVHS.
The Honors Convocation ceremony, though, summed up in two hours my six years of junior high, MVHS and gifted-track experiences in Humanities. Me and about 160 others sat on stage in front of our parents, teachers, administrators and school board members (and a couple of folks from the local press). In all somewhere near 1,000 folks showed up for this night of nights before our final day at MVHS students. Our graduating Class of ’87 was being honored for our academic achievements over the previous four years.
It turned out not to be much of an honor at all. Many of us squirmed in our unfolded chairs as one award after another was given to our valedictorian and salutatorian over the course of the ceremony. To be sure, a few others won two or three awards or scholarships. But in all, our valedictorian and salutatorian probably won between 80 and 90 percent of all of the awards and local scholarships given out by the school. The two of them picked up enough scholarships to put some of us through four years of college, much less one.
In all I won two awards: the Presidential Academic Fitness Award (which all of us on stage won) and a Perfect Attendance award (I missed thirteen days of school in four years — hardly perfect). I was so incensed by the award that I did receive that I promptly tossed them into a garbage can on my way out of MVHS that night. Luckily my mother wasn’t there.
Now I’m not begrudging the top two members of our class for having received so many awards. I wasn’t all that upset about not even winning the History Award (I knew that the Social Studies Department chair didn’t like me or my favorite teacher Harold Meltzer). It was more about the realization that none of us rated high enough for consideration in the eyes of our teachers and administrators. At least high enough for them to realize that no kid would want to sit on stage for two hours in an honors ceremony held in essence for two of their peers. It was typical behavior on the part of the adults in authority at MVHS at the time. If I had known in advance how so many awards would go to the top two of our class, I would’ve stayed home.
The Honors Convocation we experienced sent the message that our four years of high academic achievement didn’t matter unless our administrators and teachers liked us or if our weighted GPAs were over a 5.0 on a 4.0 scale. Or unless we had parents who mattered in the city’s economic and civic arena. All of those larger issues were at work behind the scenes in the lead up to this ceremony. All of us on stage may have been well on way to college and had done much while at MVHS to deserve recognition. The fact that most of us, including me, didn’t get it was more about how MVHS and the school district saw its diverse student body than it had to do with any of us.
This week MVHS will hold another Honors Convocation. Gone are the distinctions between gifted-track and other students, because Humanities ended as a program in ’93. That’s a good thing in general. But something else has cropped up that is also somewhat unnerving. One of my former classmates decided to begin a memorial fund for the recently deceased Brandie Weston, one that would provide a small scholarship to a MVHS student with creative aspirations (e.g., music, arts, writing, etc.) for college. A good and admirable idea. Except that no mechanisms had been set up to make this more than a one-time donation. No procedures were in place to raise money for this first scholarship in the first place until about two weeks ago. Nor was Brandie’s mother contacted about this prior to moving ahead with the scholarship. Who knows? It may have been better to approach Brandie’s SUNY Purchase classmates (as part of their Alumni or Class of ’91 or however they’ve organized themselves) about donating to a memorial fund that may or may not have included MVHS or other entities.
Perhaps the most important aspect of this process has been the lack of consideration of what Brandie might’ve wanted. Given all of our experiences at MVHS, including hers, I doubt very seriously that Brandie would’ve wanted a memorial fund in her name given at MVHS with MVHS staff involved in the selection process. It’s somewhere between presumptuous and arrogant to go forward with this memorial fund given this reality. I hope that if I or other classmates ever decide to do something like this again or more regularly, it will be done with practical and experiential considerations in mind so that we can avoid being part of a tainted selection or coronation process.