As some kind of bizarre independence ritual in a moment of teenage zeal, Beth Roland flipped a breaker at Payette High School to facilitate the infamous Senior Prank that happens every year. Water balloons, a quarantined-hallway rave, enormous hay bails blocking the Principal’s car, cups of water strategically placed at the corner of every square foot of the main hallway — all of these are examples of what has been done in the past by the exiting senior classes to annoy the teachers and staff and give one sarcastic goodbye to the unwitting underclassmen. Beth realized what she did was wrong and offered to make restitution, but these facts give context to the high school’s decision for her not to speak at Payette’s Graduation Commencement Ultimately, the reason given was that she was late in getting her speech to her administrators.
Yet, Beth’s story deserves to be told; after all, she was the Valedictorian of Payette High School’s Class of 2021. This is not an attempt to rationalize her actions, because she has already admitted that she was wrong, or to condemn the actions of Payette High School, because being a teacher at PHS is not for the weak, and because hard decisions have to be made at times to send a message. I understand; I taught at PHS for three years as a sophomore English teacher.
The practice of naming a valedictorian, according to John Thelin, a research professor at the University of Kentucky, goes back to 1772 at the College of William & Mary. Valedictorian means “to say goodbye” and, accordingly, the person receiving this honor would address her classmates at the commencement ceremony. This is a tradition that began with colonial roots and is older than the Constitution of the United States.
The typical high school valedictorian comes from a more traditional nuclear family, has some influence in the school community, and has a naturally confident emotional intelligence that lets her ply in social situations with ease among adults. This ability to schmooze creates an environment of politicking in the acquisition of favorable grades. If you are under the false belief that how you treat a teacher has nothing to do with the grade that you should receive in class, then you probably have a naive notion of right, wrong and reality.
Beth is special because she is not this person — at least not entirely. Her mother passed away when she was very young, and she was raised by her father, Dan, and her cousin, Katie, for most of her pre-adult life. They did the best they could with Beth, who I would categorize at times, as an independent belligerent. Smart kids usually are, and when you couple that with her survival instincts, you get a prickly pear personality. I first met her as a freshman in my sophomore honors class. She’d done the summer pre-requisite reading of “Catcher in the Rye,” and took the first day of class to quiz me on certain analytical perspectives of JD Salinger. This was not because she loved the book or the metaphors; she just wanted to know if I had anything worthwhile to teach her. Luckily, I passed the exam. Beth was that kid who challenged you as a teacher, who pushed you to delineate your ideas, and was someone who didn’t seem to love the diplomacy required to get straight A’s. She was simply smarter and was dedicated to working harder than her classmates, as evinced by her 4.0 grade-point average. She excelled during our Shakespeare competition, and she was an outstanding musician playing double and electric bass, clarinet, and vibraphone in the band. One of her great disappointments was being a runner-up selection as drum major for the high school marching band. Kids like Beth have to grow up early and choose to become successful despite themselves. They don’t seem to have time for the nonsense politics we encounter in life and, honestly, we as a society value the worker, the underdog, and the unexpected brilliance of people who come from non-optimal paths.
This is Beth. Malcolm Gladwell, in one of his best-selling books, “David and Goliath,” has this to say about disadvantages:
“Much of what we consider valuable in our world arises out of these kinds of lopsided conflicts, because the act of facing overwhelming odds produces greatness and beauty.”
I, and anyone who will join with me, should applaud Beth Roland for what she accomplished at PHS, irrespective of her ill-timed decisions. Most of us will never know the feeling of being the best at something, and Beth now knows this.
As a parting thought out of civil responsibility, Beth is concerned about the epidemic of depression and suicide among teenagers, particularly those in Payette. She would say if you find yourself in a situation where hope seems dim and the prospect of hope seems unattainable, you should find someone to talk to. A parent, a counselor, a teacher, a mentor, a friend. In the public school system there are counselors specifically trained to help and refer help, and if you look hard enough and have courage, there is someone nearby that can help and listen. You are worth being heard.
For Beth, my wife and I would like to thank her parents, her cousin Katie, her siblings, her teachers, her friends and everyone who supported her in this achievement. We would like to thank her for her persistence and hard work, and her choice to come into our lives. We can’t wait to see what comes next.
We love you and congratulations,
Shawn and Shaunna King