It’s funny. I’ve spent significant time on this blog talking about my high school experiences in relationship to my graduation class’ salutatorian, and no time talking about our Class of ’87 valedictorian. Funny because she and I maintained an acquaintanceship that turned into a friendship that lasted for a good sixteen years after high school. Funny because I got to know her and her family better than anyone I ever knew growing up in Mount Vernon, New York. Funny because I learned some important life lessons while watching her ascent to number one in our class, and the struggles she faced once she had taken on the mantle of valedictorian.
I first met “V” in eighth grade, although I had heard about her academic prowess from my other classmates while in 7S. She was above all else a classic grinder, a nerd par excellence. At five-foot-seven, she was one of the tallest folks in class. She was also blond-haired, blue-eyed and blandly pale. V was always prepared, always ready for the next task at hand even then. Our eventual salutatorian seemed like he was always running for class president, constantly seeking others’ confidence in him. His A’s seemed more natural, as if he almost didn’t have to study. Beyond that, I really didn’t think that much about them that year.
At least until I started bumping into V on my way to or from school. It was through this that I met her mother and her sister and learned that her mother had a serious illness. What kind of illness I didn’t know at the time. I assumed it was serious to V, because I remember her being upset a lot in eighth grade. I would’ve thought that V might’ve cared about something like winning the history prize. I’m sure she had an A in Demontravel’s class. V being V, her favorite classes that year were science and algebra. And given Demontravel’s ability to make the end of American slavery seem like we were watching a dog lick its ass in the middle of the desert, it’s a wonder if V even said two words the entire year.
V was and still is the biggest Billy Joel fan I’ve ever known. Schmaltzy or not, everything Billy Joel from “Piano Man” to “New York State of Mind” to “Pressure” — the entire Billy Joel catalog — was in her head as if she were double our age. By the time I’d met her, she’d already been to at least one Billy Joel concert. I liked some Billy Joel — the operative word being some — but I would’ve needed a glass of Manischewitz to listen to some of his more obscure work. This was one of our first conversations, about music and her love affair with the singer-songwriter from Long Island.
I guess the fact that I learned about her mother’s illness early on gave me sympathy for her. Whatever else might’ve bothered me about my situation, I knew that my mother wasn’t sick or had a serious medical condition like, say, Lou Gehrig’s Disease or muscular dystrophy. So I learned fairly quickly that V didn’t come from a healthy family of means. This despite that fact that her father was a prominent figure in our city. It was something we had in common, poverty based in large measure on two fathers not involved in our daily lives. I don’t think that V would ever admit it, but that commonality was the reason we were able to form a bond that year.
Our eventual valedictorian took Humanities so seriously that she had thrown herself into her work by ninth grade the way in which I worked when I was in graduate school. Along with about a dozen or so others, V took every opportunity to take the hardest courses and to participate in as many activities outside of class as she could handle. I figured out early on in the year that if a student could take every one of their classes at Level 0 (including gym) and could earn an A+ in all of them, the maximum GPA for them could be a 6.3 on a 4.0 scale, a huge weighting system for such courses. Somehow something about this seemed unfair. Of course, V was a straight A student, soaking up Geometry, Trig, PreCalc, Bio, Chemistry, and so many other subjects as if she had the answers before the teachers asked any questions. And she did.
By eleventh grade, I found myself in more of V’s classes by virtue of me taking AP US History with Meltzer, along with first period English and eighth period Physics (or was it seventh? Hmm). God, she was so focused once class started! It was as if V was Martina Navratilova at Wimbledon, ready to pound an opponent in submission in under forty minutes.
Sometimes, though, that laser-beam-like focus of her’s was to her detriment. Our English teacher Mrs. Warns had given us an essay exam looking at James Baldwin’s writings, a pretty bold assignment for a White teacher to give us in ’86 (it wouln’t be bold now, except in the Bible Belt). Warns had warned us after the last exam to underline book titles and put quotation marks around essays or we’d get twenty-five points taken off our grades. V, unfortunately, was the only one who failed to follow these instructions, of which Warns had reminded us just before the exam. Sure enough, V’s 92 became a 67, the lowest grade I remember V receiving during our Humanities years. It was also the only time I can remember V receiving the lowest class grade for any assignment in any subject.
She protested, became angry with Warns, and walked out of class in tears. We walked with her to Meltzer’s class, we being me and three female classmates. It was our attempt to console her. Except I didn’t really feel like giving V emotional support at that moment. It wasn’t as if she was going to fail the class or, God forbid, end up with a B, not for even one marking period. So her 5.6 GPA would drop maybe to a 5.5. V herself wasn’t a supportive person academically-speaking anyway. I had mixed feelings about V’s response, but I understood perfectly why Warns did it.
By the summer going into our senior year, I began hanging out a little bit with V, whose life was fully dedicated to finishing college before she started. Besides her job as an assistant with a dentist who just so happened to be the husband of our former eighth-grade science teacher — it was on my weekly route toward my father Jimme’s watering holes in the Bronx — she was working hard at home taking care of her mother and her younger sister. I know I had it hard at 616, but V’s life was comparable in a few ways. Her ailing mother had reached the point where she was using a cane to walk, but she was mostly wheelchair bound. Her mother was maybe four or five years older than mine, but they looked twenty years apart. I knew why V worked as hard as she did, given her situation. It was something we had in common, becoming an adult long before our teenage years were over.
V was also blowing through our textbook for AP Physics. She apparently had borrowed a copy from Wolf at the end of the school year and was going through it during her spare moments. She was also working her way through Calculus, just so she could take the tougher version of the two AP Calculus exams. I thought she was crazy working as hard as she was to prepare for next year. I also realized that this was V’s secret to success, taking her time during the summers to study as if she was preparing for the state bar exam. Based on what I saw, I figured that V was going to spend about two hundred hours studying for the two AP classes that summer. Unbelievable, absolutely unbelievable! I worried for her mental health, hoping that she wouldn’t burn herself out trying to be the perfect student.
Yet somehow she didn’t, at least not in ’86-’87. Like me, V scored a 5 on the AP US History exam. But that was only the beginning. She also scored a 1360 on her SAT, was ranked number one in our class with a 5.45 GPA, and would score a 5 on the AP Calc BC, AP Physics C, and AP Biology exams, and a 4 on the AP English exam. She guaranteed herself twenty-seven college credits, making her a college sophomore before she’d been given her high school diploma. Between the scores and grades, scholarship offers were aplenty, but V opted for Johns Hopkins and their pre-med program. I had no doubt that she would do just as well there as she did in high school.
Still, in the back of my mind, as I developed a regular correspondence with V all through our college years, I worried about her and her family. They all moved to the DC area right before V’s freshman year at Johns Hopkins. I knew that she was about to attempt to work, study, date, have a social life and take care of her mother and sister at the same time. I had no doubt that she’d find the strength to finish college, but I also had no doubt that all of these burdens were bound to catch up to her. My own family, school and social situation had left me with my own sense of burnout and reckoning by the beginning of my sophomore year. By her true sophomore year, they did.
Meltzer said to me on any number of occasions that “I never worried about you. I worried about V. I worried about V a lot.” I also knew that over the years he had worried about a couple of other classmates. The first time he ever said that to me was during my sophomore year of college. I was offended by the comment. “I had the least of everything when I was in his class,” I thought, “and he knew that but didn’t worry?” In the years since that first comment, I realized that the way I approached class and my life meant that I already had the tools to overcome everything I faced. I certainly didn’t realize it at the time.
What Meltzer didn’t realize was that V had the tools to cope as well. She just had to find the strength to use them, which she eventually did. I learned long before the end of high school that as analytically gifted as I was, that it wasn’t my job to be perfect, at school or at home. V learned that lesson in college, and from where I sit, learned that lesson well. It would behoove so many other parents and students to learn not to pursue perfection and excellence as if it were pure gold, to learn that life is about balance, and that learning is about more than A’s.