June of 1976 departed from meteorological custom and came to life in a string of sunny days that in the final week turned sweltering. No catastrophes clouded thedaily headlines. Developer Ernie Hahn continued to dicker with city officials over the yet-unbuilt Horton Plaza.San Diego cops,demanding pay raises,did some picketing. The Marines probed the death of a young recruit who'd been beaten over the head with a pugil stick during training. And all overthe county, high schools planned elaborate commencement ceremonies.
Most of the schools directed particular attention to the student or students who’d gotten As in every class every year of their high school careers. From among them, some schools picked one to be valedictorian, while others allowed two or more paragons to share the honor. On graduation day, many of the valedictorians gave speeches, and the question must have struck at least a few of those who listened and squirmed in their seats and sweated: How would these grade-smart, inchoate beings fare in the real world? What kind of adults would they be 20 years later?
AS SHE SAT WAITING TO DELIVER HER ORATION ON “Gratitude,” Oliva Mae Glorioso thought she knew how her life would unfold. She would go to college and get a degree in computer science, then find a good job working for some San Diego firm. She’d marry Rudy Victa, who’d been her boyfriend since the end of ninth grade at National City’s Granger Junior High. Their yearbooks testified to their faith. Rudy planned to “marry his wonderful Oliva, raise a beautiful family, and live happily ever after,” according to the caption under his picture. Hers said she would “happily share eternity with Rudy.”
They would have several children and someday buy a big house with an ocean view. All this would come without too much stress or toil.
Success had always come thus for Oliva Mae. “I started having good grades when I was in kindergarten,” she recalls today with characteristic placidity. “I remember in first grade I won a contest. I wrote a poem, and I was in the newspaper.” At El Toyon Elementary, she earned As, and by the time she reached the upper grades, she’d been classified as gifted.
It’s not so hard to see the high school girl she was then in the 37-year-old woman she is today. When interviewed for this article, her body had a fullness that betrayed the recent big event in her life: the birth five and a half weeks before of her fourth child, a strapping son. Her ebony hair was lush and uncorroded by gray. She looks Asian, and though born in National City, her girlish voice has a faint foreign cadence, one difficult to pinpoint. In fact, she’s one of two children of “real strict” Filipino parents. “So we were always raised, you know, you don’t talk back. You do what your parents say.... I remember them giving me money for each A that I got, and I always got a lot of As.” She giggles. But apart from making her practice the piano, which she disliked, she says she never felt pressured by them to perform well in school.
She had a lot of fun at Sweetwater High. “Too much fun!” The laugh erupts again. “I don’t remember actually studying so hard. I don’t look back and see that it was a lot of work.” Surrounded by friends, she was on the tennis, gymnastics, and badminton teams. “I also played softball, but I wasn’t on the team.” She did some track and field as well, but though her boyfriend was a football player, Oliva didn’t become a cheerleader because Rudy prohibited it. “He was very jealous of other guys...sort of a possessive-type person,” she notes today.
In her junior year, she competed in the America’s Junior Miss contest. “It was sort of like a beauty pageant, but talent, scholastic ability, physical fitness, and some other things counted for as much or more than poise and appearance. I played the piano for the talent portion of it. So it paid off. At least I had something to do for my talent.” She wasn’t reduced to reciting a poem or doing some inane mime routine, like those girls upon whom music lessons hadn’t been forced. She won the National City title, then went up to Santa Rosa and lost in the state competition.
Back at home, her academic success never faltered, however, something she views with some vagueness today. “I think the people I associated with were all good students, and my boyfriend was doing really well also. I don’t know if that made me keep up my grades. I remember doing our homework together. I always was good at doing my homework. But I never thought I’d be valedictorian. It’s nothing I really thought about.”
By the time she gave her valedictory speech, her college plans were secure. She had only applied to one college. “I knew in my senior year what I wanted to do, and the reason I knew is that my father was retired from the Navy, but he was taking some computer classes to get an AA and telling me how you could get really good jobs with just four years of college. And that’s what I wanted. I didn’t want to go and get a doctorate. I didn’t want to go an extra year to get a teacher’s credential or whatever. I just wanted to do my four years, get in and get out, and computer science was a booming profession. I think my decision was based mainly on laziness and greed.” She looks unperturbed, even amused, as she considers this.
Because the University of California at Irvine had a good reputation for teaching computer science, she chose it. She never considered venturing farther afield, “ ’Cause I was real close to my family. In fact, I would have gone to UCSD, but then they would have made me stay at home, and I wanted to live away. So UCI was the closest. It was still the University of California and a good school. And it was real pretty too. But yet it wasn’t too far, like Berkeley or something, where I could only go home once every two months. Here I was going home, like, every other weekend. My parents really liked that.”
Several scholarships helped ease the financial burden, and she and her boyfriend (who had also decided to study computer science at UCI) moved there in August of 1976. As freshman year unfolded, however, one element of the life Oliva had scripted for herself began to sour. More and more, she resented Rudy’s possessiveness and domination. “Maybe that’s fine for a small high school, but when you go to college, you can’t just suffocate someone. I wanted to do stuff with my roommate, and he was very jealous of that. I finally broke up with him during finals week. He was pretty upset.”
By then an even more profound change was becoming manifest. Oliva muses, “I don’t know...I think I just sort of — just relaxed or something. After breaking up with my boyfriend, I started dating my karate instructor, who was in San Diego. I’d come down here during summers and holidays, and I got hooked up with him to where I didn’t care that much about my school.
“I did okay in college, but I could have done much better. It was just — I went out too much and did too many things. And I didn’t care. I was, like, ‘So what? As long as I finish college, that’s all I care about.’ ”
For the first time in her school life, she disliked most of the classes. “I was just getting through it,” she recalls. “I just wanted to do it to get my degree and get a job. And it wasn’t as structured as high school. In high school, you have to go to class. But in college, you don’t have to go to the lecture if you have a boring instructor. I felt like I could get away with a lot and still make good grades.” She was right. Despite her desultory attendance, she still managed to get As and Bs, though she did receive a few Cs. “I was sort of glad, actually, that I got a C for the amount of work that I put in, which was hardly anything. They were in classes that you had to take — not practical or application-oriented, but very abstract and a bunch of nonsense."
After four years, she graduated with a grade-point average of around 3.5, she recalls, and within a month she took a job working as a programmer for NCR in Rancho Bernardo. After two years, she married a man 13 years her senior whom she had met at work. Together they had three children, a boy who’s now 12 and two daughters aged 9 and 8. Throughout their lives, Oliva has continued to work for NCR, and she claims she was happy with her marriage. “It lasted a long time, and we had three beautiful children from it. But his values and mine changed as we both got older. His interests and mine were different. At a certain point it was decided it was best for the children and for us that we not live together."
After a friendly divorce, Oliva began dating another NCR employee whom she’d known for years. They married two years ago and bought a house a half-mile from the water in Solana Beach. It’s a white stucco structure with several balconies and a sweeping front lawn edged with lemon-colored day lilies. “We really enjoy it, but it’s expensive. We have so many bills—mortgage payments and things like that. So I’ve got to keep working,” Oliva says with a wistful sigh. (A relative brought in from the Philippines will help care for the infant.)
These days Oliva works in customer support at NCR, rather than programming. “I’m out in the field a lot, and I do enjoy that,” she says. Achievement is “not something I really think about as much as I once did. In high school and in college there were goals. You had to get good grades in high school, otherwise you couldn’t go to college. In college, you had to have good grades, or otherwise you wouldn’t get a good job. But once you start working — I mean, it takes a lot before they can fire you. You have to really screw up bad. It used to be I wanted to do really, really well so I could get a promotion and a raise and stuff. That used to be my goal. But after working there for 15 years. I’m sort of at a cap now where I can’t go any higher unless I climb the corporate ladder and move to the corporate offices in Dayton. But my husband and I have decided that we’re not going to relocate. My family and my roots are here. So we’re not moving.”
Looking back on her career choice, Oliva says, “I am glad that I graduated with the computer science major. It is a good field. It pays off. But if money were no object, it’s something I wouldn’t do over again. If I didn’t have to worry about money. I’d probably do something like social work or something in the entertainment area. Something more creative. My job is more intellectual, more nerdy. I’m just too much into it now to quit. And it’s funny. I talk to all my friends at work who are women who graduated in computer science, and they don’t like it either. They go to work. It’s for the paycheck, and they’d probably do it over again because they’re worried about the money, and if we were to do social work, we’d get, like, an eighth of our pay.
“I’m really happy with the way my life has turned out,” she insists. She shares a wide range of interests with her new husband. “We both love the same music and eat the same food and have the same values for the family and kids.” Both are runners, and they engage in a wide variety of other sports. Both watch a lot of television together, Oliva says. “Which is bad for the kids,” she says, giggling. “But I’ve never been one to sit down and read a lot of books. My husband’s the same way. I’d rather watch TV or see a movie than read a book, and I’ve always been that way.”
What’s the ultimate in life for her? “Oh, gosh.” This question provokes a sigh. Then in an even smaller little-girl voice, she says, “Well, I wanted an ocean-view house and we got that.” The thought amuses her. “Having the last baby was nice.... We wanted one to be ours. So we got that. I don’t know. I haven’t really thought about what else there is. I’m just sort of happy.”
“I NEVER PARTICULARLY felt like I was smart in elementary school,” Bruce Stevenson declares. Today he’s chairman of the English department at MiraCosta College in Oceanside; in 1976 he was valedictorian of Hoover High School’s graduating class. But Stevenson says the conviction that he could get top grades didn’t come to him until after fifth grade, when he and his family returned from a year in England. “My dad, who is a retired community college English teacher and who had taught at Mesa College for many years, was on a Fulbright exchange. Somebody from a school in London came, and their family lived in our house, and we lived in their flat in Wimbledon.” There Stevenson was placed in a class of students a year more advanced than he was.
“It was a very difficult situation for me. I did all right, though I didn’t excel by any means.” But when he returned to the sixth-grade class at Benjamin Franklin Elementary, school seemed easier, he recalls.
His home life too, Stevenson notes today, was a promising incubator of academic success. Both his parents went to Macalester College in St. Paul, Minnesota, and his father also later earned a master’s degree. “I’m the youngest in the family; I have two older sisters,” Stevenson says. “So I had the advantage of being around older people.” In elementary school, he didn’t share his father’s love of literature. “I never read much. In fact, though I did well at school, I didn’t love it. I didn’t have any real passions. I liked hanging out with my friends at the rec center at Franklin Elementary.” Had he been asked what he thought of school when he was in sixth grade, he would have shrugged his shoulders and said, “It’s okay.”
Once at Woodrow Wilson Junior High, however, “I seemed to come into my own, academically.” He started hanging out with a group of other advanced students. “And to tell you the truth, I think I liked the academics because I did well at it. I just liked the strokes I got for earning the As. That was the reinforcement.” In response, he worked hard to get more of them. “I did a lot of studying. It was almost compulsive.
“I remember having to give a report in science, and I remember that Life magazine that year had come out with a four-part series on the brain. I was just fascinated with paranoid schizophrenia, so I did this report on it. It was only supposed to be about ten minutes long, but I put in so many hours! Nobody pushed me. Nobody asked me how it was going. I just did it all on my own. The night before, I rehearsed it on a tape recorder — over and over and over. I felt that I had to do this thing just right.”
Stevenson remembers having a conscious resolve to get all As at Hoover High School. At that time, students received two report cards per year, plus two “quarter reports,” a sort of progress bulletin halfway through each semester that didn’t affect one’s grade point average. On the latter, “I almost always got a couple of Bs. I kind of backed off a little bit in the first half of the semester, waited to see where I needed to work harder, and then I pushed for the second half of the semester. And always got As.”
He says, “The only person I felt competitive with — and I won’t bring up her name — had to do with the valedictorian thing. She had a 4.0 as well, but she wasn’t on the academic track that I was. And to be honest now, I felt resentful that she was even in contention for this. I will admit, as I became a senior, the whole valedictorian thing started meaning something to me.”
In the end, he got to make the farewell speech. “Because of the bicentennial year, I picked the theme of freedom and responsibility,” he answers, when asked about the topic. “I sort of polled people and asked them how they would define freedom. And I remember bringing Sir Thomas More and Henry David Thoreau into it.” He says he dug it up a few years ago and re-read it. “And I was not impressed.”
His SAT scores also were not dazzling, “Just slightly above average,” as Stevenson recalls. “I think I may have had a combined score of maybe 1100. I don’t do those kinds of tests well. I think too much. I say, ‘Well, what do they really want here?’ That kind of thing.” Nonetheless, he won acceptance from the two colleges to which he applied, UCSD and California Lutheran College (now University).
“It’s funny,” Stevenson reflects. “Even though I was so grade-conscious and so academically image-conscious, at the time I applied to college, I was absolutely unaware of the hierarchy and the prestige associated with certain institutions. It did not occur to me to apply to Brown or Columbia or Chicago or Stanford or Berkeley or Harvard. They had no meaning for me whatsoever.” His parents “never groomed me in that way. They sort of stayed out of it, and I don’t really know why. Maybe they had a fear of pushing or being too much of an influence.
“So it was totally my choice to go to Cal Lutheran, and boy, was I glad I did. They were the best four years of my life. It’s a small liberal-arts college. I think when I was going there they had about 1200 full-time students. And it was a great experience — academically, socially, spiritually.”
Stevenson had won enough scholarship money from various sources to pay for about two-thirds of the tuition. His father also contributed something, “and then I worked in the summers. One summer I worked at the Kings Grille in Hotel Circle as a singer. I happened to be singing at a wedding at my church, and the manager of the restaurant was there. At the reception he just came up and asked me if I wanted to work as a singer. And here some of my training with homework paid off, because I had to build a repertoire of about 30 songs in about four days. I just went crazy, singing those songs all day. When I started I may have had only 18 or 20, but then every day I’d learn a few more.
“I never felt that I was gifted with any innate skills,” Stevenson says. “My IQ is slightly above average. My wife is the one of the bazooka IQ, not me. The only time that anything started coming to me naturally was when I was a freshman in college and I took my first literature course and I just did what you were supposed to do, and the professor was really impressed. He was sort of an existentialist by nature. What a great time to encounter that, when you’re 18 years old. I was just ripe for the picking. And for the first time in my life, I started to connect with the literature. It started meaning something to me and moving me in ways that it never had before.”
That’s when he began to think about majoring in English, he says. (Prior to that, he’d only had ill-defined thoughts about a possible law career.) “I remember talking to the chair of the English department and saying, ‘Well, you know, now that I’m going to major in English, I think I’ll go into advertising.’ And he smiled. He was a very sort of tweedy fellow — the goatee and the pipe and everything — and he smiled and said to me between his teeth, ‘Well, you just let yourself do the major and then think about whether advertising is what you want to do.’ What he was telling me was, go through the program and your interests will probably not be directed toward advertising or using language for that sort of purpose. And he was right. I think probably by the time I was a sophomore, I knew I would be teaching, and I knew it would be higher education. Never had an interest in teaching high school.” Stevenson says his craving for As didn’t abate in college, although the three times he did get Bs, he shrugged them off. “Because there was good reason for it. The first came my first semester freshman year, when I took an upper-division history of philosophy course. I was just struggling, though I finally started to get it and pulled the B. But the valedictorian thing was over. That wasn’t on the line anymore. Later I got a B in biology because I just wasn’t good at it. And the other B I got was as a senior in American history. But I had fallen in love.”
His inamorata, also an English major, was a year younger, so she stayed to finish up her degree when, in the fall of 1980, Stevenson began graduate studies in Colorado. He says that once again, his choice of schools “was not a particularly thoughtful decision.” He’d applied to Stanford, Berkeley, UCLA, the University of Washington, and the University of Colorado at Boulder. Accepted by all but the first two, he says he reasoned, ‘Well, Washington’s too rainy. UCLA is Los Angeles, and I’ve been in Southern California ail my life. Colorado sounds like a great place.’ So off I went.
“I had more Bs in graduate school than I did in high school or college,” Stevenson says. After the first year, he and his fiancee got married, while he also combined his class work with a string of jobs that ranged from busboy to bank teller. “I had these colleagues — graduate students — who were living off trusts, and they thought their lives were so complicated. They’d get an A-minus and they’d have a minor breakdown. I looked at that and said, ‘This is really ridiculous.’ I felt it was just time to sit back and say, ‘There are more important things than schools and grades.’ ”
Stevenson in fact wound up taking 13 years to get his Ph.D. In 1985, after finishing his master’s degree and the Ph.D. class work, he applied for and won the teaching position at MiraCosta. Once settled in Oceanside, he plunged into full-time teaching and tried to study for the comprehensive exam for the doctoral degree. A year before, his wife had given birth to their first child, a son, and early in 1986, she became pregnant again. “I didn’t realize how hard it would be to do it all,” Stevenson reflects back on those days. “Every day after I taught, I went to the library and read for four hours. Went home. Helped put the kids to bed. Read some more. And then if I had papers to grade, I’d do it then or on the weekend.” After two years of this, he passed the exam. “Then I kind of did nothing for about two years, and then I started to work on the dissertation” (on “the cultural concept of disorder in the post-Revolutionary novel”). He finally finished it in 1993 (six years after getting tenure at MiraCosta).
His children are now 11 and 9, and Stevenson says his son “demonstrated his ability very early on. So I’m at that point now where I sort of expect good things from him.” His daughter “is very bright, and she will do very well, but she’s just blooming a little bit later.... And she’ll slack off if she can get away with it. I think she has a better self-image than (my son) does. His self-image is very much defined by his performance. And hers is not. She’s quite happy with herself. So she doesn’t get worried if she doesn’t do so well. Which actually is better in the long run. She might not succeed in ways that he will. But people who are driven the way that he is and maybe the way that I was — that’s not always the best reason to be driven. You do succeed. But you pay for it in other ways. Like stress.”
One sunny afternoon, asked about the ultimate in life, Stevenson confided that his secret dream was to return to Cal Lutheran as a member of the English department faculty. He wasn’t unhappy at MiraCosta, he asserted. He liked teaching — even though the course he’s taught most often has been freshman composition, a challenging and often frustrating task. “I would like to teach upper-division classes, and I’d love to be able to mentor students in a way that I can’t do here. Also, the irony of a community college is that it’s called that, but it often has so little community. There’s no sense of the village that you get at a small four-year school.” So when he learned in October of 1995 that Cal Lutheran had an opening for an assistant English professor, he decided to apply for it. Some 450 other candidates also did so, but by early April, the throng had been reduced to a field of only 4, including Stevenson. “Now I’m trying to tell myself that however things turn out. I’m in a good situation,” he said. “Because I’m not unhappy here, and I’d take a huge cut financially going to Cal Lutheran. But it’s one of those dream things. And I think if the opportunity came up and I didn’t take it, God, I wouldn’t want to be 45 years old and going through some major depression because I didn’t do it.” Two weeks after making those comments, he learned he had gotten the job. He says he’ll probably move in August into a furnished apartment on campus. His wife and children will remain in San Diego County so his wife can teach for one more year at Vista’s magnet school for the visual and performing arts, a job she loves. She’ll join her husband a year later, and he says the prospects for her finding a good job in Thousand Oaks look excellent. He says at Cal Lutheran he’ll have to work hard preparing new courses, and he’ll be starting the tenure process from scratch. But he sounds very confident that he’ll do well.
GETTING A’S IN SCHOOL WAS “LIKE A GAME” for Cindy Schwartz. The only child of an aeronautical engineer and a young British woman who’d emigrated to America to work as a domestic in the 1950s, the game was one that Cindy didn’t play at Cabrillo Elementary, where the classes bored her and she didn’t perform well. Not until the first quarter of ninth grade at Dana Junior High School in Point Loma did the As appear on her report card — only As, startling in their homogeneity. “Everybody has some niche that they fall into, and I thought, ‘Well, gosh, this will be my little thing.’ ” She says she thought, “I can’t get worse than this. I felt like I had to keep on getting straight As.”
And so she did. Point Loma High School “was a lot of work, but I never really looked at it like that. I had a lot of fun.” Outside her classes, Schwartz was a member of the softball team, and her major activity involved music, playing trumpet in the high school (and later, college) bands. “I actually sort of became a professional musician for a while. I played in a German polka band called the Bavarian Beer Garden Band. We used to go to Big Bear and New Year’s Eve parties out at Swiss Park in Chula Vista and do all kinds of crazy things.”
That first high school autumn, she also met a soul mate, another musician, named Doug. Never romantic partners, the pair nonetheless became inseparable. “We used to take all our classes together,” Schwartz recalls. “He’s very, very funny, and we used to write all sorts of satires and put on radio plays. He’s now married and has kids in San Diego. We’re still good friends.”
Today Schwartz is a lean, angular woman who wears her frosted hair in a short, no-nonsense cut. Her brows are dark, straight landmarks; her manner blunt, informal, a bit jaded. What was she like 20-plus years ago? The question — or the introspection — makes her squirm. “I didn’t hang with the popular people — the football players and the cheerleaders and people like that,” she finally answers. “At the end of senior year, the students voted for people in certain categories; the two best athletes, male and female; the biggest idiot; the most likely to succeed — stuff like that.” She and a male classmate won the “Poindexter and Poindextress” titles. (“Poindexter was this little brainy kid out of the Felix the Cat cartoon.”) Socially, Schwartz says she hung out “with the music people, who tend to be sort of their own little crowd. And within that crowd — with people that I feel comfortable with — I’m pretty wild.”
She says her academic competitiveness, if anything, built over time. “It got to the point where sometimes getting straight As wasn’t enough. I had to get, like, the highest score on a test or in the class.... Again, it was like a game. Once you get to a certain point, you have to do something even more and then something even more.” As things turned out, she shared the highest overall grade point average and the valedictory honors with another girl, Kendra Shank.
“I think I wrote the first half and she wrote the second of the speech,” Schwartz recalls. “It was really, really boring. Something about changes in the trends of education or something — just so awful. But we had to test it out in front of all the scholarly teachers, and we didn’t think that interjecting anything remotely humorous would go over too well.”
Each girl delivered her part of the speech, and then their paths in life diverged. Schwartz had applied to San Diego State, the University of California at Santa Barbara, and Princeton — “just for the heck of it. I wasn’t really planning on going there, but I wanted to see if I could get in.... I wasn’t one of those types who just couldn’t wait to leave home. I think part of it was that my parents made it easy for me to want to stay. For example, my dad used to pay my car insurance and do little things like that, and I’d think, ‘Well, if I left home, they might not pay for that anymore.’ ”
Other factors also may have limited her thinking, she now acknowledges. “I think part of me was sort of afraid that I wouldn’t do well if I went to, like, a Harvard or some place like that. I was so worried about this grade thing. You get locked into it, and it’s, like, you do anything you can to make sure you get those grades. I figured it would be easier to get straight As at San Diego State than it would be at Princeton, so I’d better go to State.”
In fact, Princeton turned her down, and Schwartz wound up living at home and enrolling in a special SDSU program for advanced students. “The first semester was, like, a major shock,” she recalls, “ ’cause it was so much harder than high school. One of the first classes that I took was chemistry. Most people just died in that class.
That first semester of chemistry weeded so many people out of, like, life. I spent hours and hours in the help room with the tutors, because I didn’t want to not get an A.” Once again, she didn’t fail — then or any time throughout her college career. (She still recounts with considerable bitterness how she happened to get her only collegiate A-minus.)
But all the fun was gone from her studies. “I didn’t really like it at all. I was really depressed the first semester. Some of the classes were just so dreary, and the instructors would drone on and on, and you never got to know any of them the way we had in high school.” She began taking only 12 or 13 units a semester. “I still wanted to get all As, and I figured if I took too many courses. I’d have to work too hard and wouldn’t have a life,” she explains. And her extracurricular interests had expanded. Besides playing in SDSU’s concert band, she and Doug (whom she had talked into going to State'also) had taken up folk dancing. Often they danced every night, and they wound up teaching others.
Schwartz says it occurred to her that it would be fun to become a professional musician. “But I thought I should do something that I could make at least a decent living at.” She had thus focused on biology, “probably because I had a really, really, really good biology teacher in high school. He was, like, the best teacher I ever had in my whole life." By the end of her junior year in college, however, she was still groping to channel her scientific interests. She’d rejected being a doctor, because the thought of dealing with sick people repulsed her. She says she considered becoming a medical researcher, “but I knew that wouldn’t be for me because I don’t like to spend a lot of time doing one thing. I like to get something done fast, and I want to move on to something else. It seemed like with research, you spend two years working on one thing, and maybe you get an answer and maybe you don’t. I couldn’t handle that. I want fast results now.”
Because she had enjoyed the lab portion of her college chemistry courses, she began to think about becoming a medical technologist. After graduating from State and taking some additional required microbiology classes, she was accepted into a one-year residency program at St. Joseph’s Hospital in Orange. After that, she obtained her state medical technologist’s license and worked at Humana Hospital in Huntington Beach. She says she liked her job but grew restive after about five years “because they got a new lab manager who was an idiot.” She then applied for a job at Placentia Linda Hospital, where she has worked the graveyard shift for the past six years.
Though disorienting, the night work suits her, she asserts. “I love the work atmosphere. It’s much more team-oriented, and you get to know people ’cause there’s a smaller crew on. I work by myself, so I don’t have to worry about dealing with other lab personalities and weirdos and managers and administrators. I’m really not very good at adhering to ridiculous policies. I’m more common-sense-like. Like, I figure if I’m not busy, I shouldn’t have to make up work.” She spits the words out, defiant. “It’s different in the daytime. You have to look busy and play the game. I just don’t have time for that. I want to get my work done fast — so I can go and talk in the E.R or something.
“The social atmosphere” is the best part of her job, she acknowledges with a snicker. “I.ab work is not that mentally stimulating, until something breaks and you have to try and fix it. But as far as the work goes, it’s pretty much ho-hum. Everybody gets some sort of chemistry and some sort of hematology test when they come into the ER, so it’s ‘Put this on that instrument, and go over here and make a slide, and look at this, and run that through there,’ and then you have results a half hour later. I’m sure there are things that I would probably enjoy more. But I don’t know what they are.”
What she does enjoy is the praise she receives for the food she brings to share with colleagues. About two years ago, Schwartz became interested in cooking, and now she says she devotes a lot of time to it. “There’s a network up here in Orange County] called the TV Food Network, and I watch it pretty much constantly. It’s just continuous cooking shows with different chefs and different types of cooking. I’ve been watching it for a little over a year now. And I’ve learned so much from it. I don’t hardly ever cook the same thing twice. There’s just so many new things to try. When I’m off work, that’s one of my favorite things to do—deciding what I should make that night. Sometimes even if I’m not working, if there’s a certain crew working that night that really likes to eat, I bring food in. They call me the Food Wench. Otherwise, there’s no food in the hospital in the middle of the night; just machines.”
She no longer plays any musical instruments. “I’m the type of person who will do something for so many years, then completely stop and do something else. For a while I was doing martial arts. That’s how I met my husband; he’s an instructor.” Schwartz says she trained in karate up to the black-belt level, then abandoned that. Now she plays ice hockey on a women’s team a couple of times a week.
This is the first team sport in which she’s participated since high school, and it took some adjustment, she confides. “Most of the women on the team are in their early 20s. I’m 37. And I’m pretty good at it, but I’m not the greatest person on the team. It’s hard to get used to that, because I’ve always been the star.... And I’m not anymore. Which is kind of less satisfying. I’ve always wanted to be, like, the best at something, and if I’m not it makes it less fun.”
The question of what represents the ultimate for her seemed very hard for Schwartz to answer. “Like the ultimately satisfying thing to do?” she asked. After silence that stretched for maybe half a minute, she offered, “Either playing a really good hockey game or having a really successful dinner party. Neither of which I do real often. Stuff like that. Maybe I don’t challenge myself enough, but I figure I challenged myself enough when I was in school.
“Probably most people who have kids would say that their ultimate thing would have something to do with their kids,” she added. “But if you don’t have kids, you really have to think about it. You don’t have that much else to focus on.” She says part of the reason she and her husband decided not to have children was that she’d worry so much about them. “The schools are so awful. And it just seems like there are so many awful influences out there. I’d be a nervous wreck. It seemed like it would be more trouble than it’s worth.”
Sitting in her impeccable living room — hand-painted wallpaper, numerous silk-flower arrangements, dust-free wine bottle and crystal glasses displayed on a rough-hewn coffee table — Schwartz asked if the other valedictorians interviewed all had high-paying, prestigious careers. “Are they doctors and attorneys and things like that, or are they grocery-store workers?" she wanted to know. She added that there are times she feels bad about her career choice. “Sometimes I feel like I’m not achieving enough. Comparatively speaking, if I were going to achieve in my career what I achieved in high school and college. I’d have to be, like, you know, a neurosurgeon.
“I guess I also figure that I should be making more money — although I knew right from the beginning about how much money you make. I mean, it’s not like a doctor’s salary. I went into it knowing that, but I guess I probably had a whole different life mapped out for myself: get married, have kids, have my income be secondary to another one that was comparable or more. Which turned out not to be the case.” (Her husband teaches karate at a variety of locations throughout Orange County.) “I guess," Schwartz continues, “I’d be more willing to want to go to my high school reunion if I were a doctor instead of just a lab tech. That’s sort of how I look at my career — that I’m ‘just a’ instead of a prominent this or that. Especially since everybody knew that I was valedictorian and they expected —” She doesn’t finish the sentence.
“I THINK PEOPLE WHO KNEW ME BACK THEN would never believe what I’ve wound up doing," Kendra Shank says. At Point Loma High School, besides sharing the valedictorian honors with Cindy Schwartz, Shank says she was aggressive about sharing her religious convictions with one and all. Upon graduation, she headed for Pacific Lutheran University in Tacoma, Washington. But her first year there, she took a course that extinguished her belief in religion. So she transferred to UC Davis, then to the University of Washington in Seattle. She finally graduated with a double major in French and visual arts and the intention of developing a career as a glass blower.
That never came to be. Instead, Shank says she drifted into full-time work as a folksinger and guitarist, performing at college campuses and folk clubs all over the West Coast. Because of her interest in French, she also spent a lot of time in Paris. Around 1987, for the first time in her life, she began to take an interest in jazz. “It was like I got bit by this bug! Pretty soon I had developed this absolute passion for jazz. It was all I could think about and all I wanted to listen to.”
She laughs today when she thinks about her naive reaction to the new love; she thought she could just switch from being a folksinger to being a jazz vocalist. “I didn’t realize that it’s a whole different thing,” she exclaims. “It meant learning a whole new set of vocal techniques.” But she persisted, and by 1990, she had abandoned the folk world and was surviving as a full-time jazz singer.
Today Shank ticks off a number of extraordinary career developments since then. In 1991, she met Shirley Horn and became not just a friend but a protege of the renowned jazz diva. “She became my mentor,” says Shank. “She introduced me to the man who made my record, and she produced it.” That CD, called Afterglow, was released in 1994 and got warm reviews and widespread airplay. Shank has also toured Japan three times and appeared in clubs and festivals all over Paris. “I did a live broadcast on Radio France,” she adds. She made her New York debut in 1992, and now spends several months a year performing there.
She says she’s made a lot of money during certain periods since she underwent her jazz conversion. But there are slow times too, and overall the lifestyle “doesn’t make any kind of financial sense if you care about money. In the long run, I’m just barely surviving. But for me, music is such a passion; it’s such a love. It’s almost like a religion. Jazz is so much about self-expression. It’s about really digging into your soul and letting your feelings come out. It’s who I am. I love my life. As long as I can earn enough to eat, I’ll keep singing.”
ROSS PORTER BEARS SOME RESEMBLANCE to the English actor Hugh Grant. Tall, lean, he has the rugged good looks, the strong jaw, the peaked, aristocratic hairline framing alert, observant eyes. He has the poise too, the practiced delivery, of an actor, as when he declares that his parents’ was “a bridge-club marriage.”
Prominent San Diego cultural patrons Kay and Dave Porter both had mothers who were in a bridge club together, Ross explains. "My dad’s mom was one of the founders of the Thursday Club. It was the everyday equivalent of the Wednesday Club, which was very high society, very elitist, in those days. The Thursday Club was social and fun. Bill Creator’s mom was also in it. So Mom and Dad grew up together, sort of, and their marriage definitely grew out of that experience.” Ross says both his grandfathers were local real-estate leaders. The one he was named after (Roscoe Porter) in fact served as president of San Diego’s first board of realtors in 1922. The other grandfather, Edward Hall, sat on the board of Great American Federal (“before they made all those stupid mistakes,” Ross adds).
By the time he was born, the youngest of four children, his parents had moved into a gracious Mission Hills home and led lives that brimmed with activity. “Mom was real active in the PTA and the Girl Scouts. Dad coached Little League. And they frequently had social activities of an adult nature in the arts and culture. They tried to get me interested in the symphony by doing Youth Symphony tickets and things. I wasn’t into that so much, but I loved going to cocktail parties when I was 11 years old. Sure! People knew me, and I was very loquacious and could carry on a conversation, and so all the adults were fascinated to talk to me. I was the center of attention and the only one in the family who did that.” He says his two sisters “were hippies and rejecting of the establishment, and my brother was a surfer and didn’t really have an interest in that stuff. But I was the politician. I was essentially raised to be president of the United States.”
Ross says his parents believed in sending their children to public schools, beginning with Grant Elementary on West Washington Street. After a rocky start in first grade, Ross thrived. “I always wanted to please my teachers. And I learned the words. My favorite one in second grade was ‘communication.’ I really got into that one.”
By the time he reached Roosevelt Junior High, “School was a refuge for me,” he recalls. He hated P.E.., and though he excelled at both studies and drama, he also was lonely. “I had friends, but I didn’t know really how to hang out with them. I liked to read, and I didn’t share musical tastes with my generation. I loved the big-band era, got into Tommy Dorsey and Glenn Miller when I was ten years old. So I had by these means separated myself from people.”
At San Diego High School, he never struggled for the As that came to him. “High school was easy,” he states. “I was on an [advanced placement] track. And everyone treasured me. San Diego High was trying very hard to maintain an image of a good place to go to school. They needed achievers for that, and I was a big booster for San Diego High. I felt it was getting a bad rap in the press, because Channel 8, which was just two blocks away, would send its cameras over any time there was any sense of a problem. Actually, we were less susceptible to violence of a racial nature because busing wasn’t an issue. All the students lived in the area. Even though we didn’t have a lot of interfacing between the races, we still got along, by and large. And that was a message I wanted to put out.”
Although he didn’t enter high school politics, Ross worked for the school newspaper and blossomed on the debate team. “I enjoyed high school. I was so busy, I had a pocket calendar. I had meetings to go to and opinions and attitudes to mold. I was busy.” By senior year, he was also busy with college applications. “In my mother’s family there was the strong belief that a student should go away to school,” and this ideology coincided with Ross’s inclination. So he applied to “the schools that were the best. Because why not?” Only Harvard didn’t accept him. With his grades and excellent college board scores, he won admittance to Stanford, Wesleyan, Middlebury, Yale, and Lewis and Clark. Of them he chose Yale. “Now that I’m having challenges in my career, I sometimes think, ‘Oh, I could have gone to Stanford and made so much better contacts,’ or ‘I could have gone to Middlebury and become a foreign correspondent.’ But if I had it to do over again, I’d probably still go to Yale. It was an excellent education.”
He says at first the experience of not being the smartest person in his classes disconcerted him. “I was so used to being on the edge of the bell curve. I still am on the edge of a lot of bell curves. My sexuality. My eyesight. My musical taste. My intelligence. All that stuff. I’m used to being way out there.” But at Yale “for the first time I was in the middle of the range.” He says he comforted himself by reasoning that “if I met somebody who was really better than me, then they would be open wide and embracing, and I would be a part of that betterness. And the obvious follow-on to that is, if somebody doesn’t accept you, then they’re really not better. That’s how I could enter this scary new pool. ’Cause I didn’t want to feel rejected.”
He thought it was important to specialize in something “that would give me a grip on the real world. Because what mattered to me was the real world. Watergate. The energy crisis. I mean,” he laughs, “the world needs dealing with. History was fun, but it wasn’t disciplined enough. And chemistry was — ugh! I hate science. So I was a social science major, and economics seemed like the most disciplined field, the most measurable one.” His economic studies he seasoned with exposure to many historical periods: Hellenistic art, medieval European history, a course on world communism. He finished up with a 3.2 grade point average and very little idea of what to do for a career.
“I didn’t want to go right back to San Diego to be Kay and Dave’s son. And I didn’t want to wear a coat and tie,” he says. He had worked for the campus radio station, and he finally landed a job covering the 1980 elections for a small radio station, KOBE, in Las Cruces, New Mexico. “I did that for about seven months, and then the former governor, Jerry Apodaca, announced that he was running for U.S. Senate, and he needed a press secretary and hired me. I worked for him for the next year. That was where I really wondered why I had gone to Yale. I was carrying this guy’s bags as we drove to the four corners of the state. I was blowing up bicycle tires for the parade. It wasn’t a winning campaign; we lost in June of ’82 to the attorney general, who still holds the job.
“So I was left high and dry in Santa He—out of a job, broke, uncertain about what life held for me. I turned down the opportunity to go to Washington with [New Mexico Congressman] Bill Richardson. Washington was a seductive place for me. But I didn’t feel it would be appropriate to represent such a unique, special place as New Mexico in Washington without really knowing it. So I told Bill no thanks and decided I’d sink my roots a little more deeply into New Mexico, thinking that if it was really right for me, another opportunity would present itself. Hasn’t yet, but maybe one day it will.”
Instead he enjoyed “a period of self-development in Santa Fe” — taking acting classes, doing self-awareness work. Porter says it was in this period that he first acknowledged publicly that he was gay (though not to his parents, at that point). He finally wound up working for a small Albuquerque public relations firm, a job that satisfied him until 1986. “More desperate, in retrospect, than I thought I was at the time,” he moved to Kansas City to start a singles’ magazine, but his financial backer pulled out when the first issue didn’t make money. For a few months, Porter worked as the secretary to the academic dean at the Kansas City Art Institute, a post he loved but which was never intended to be more than temporary. “Finally in September of’87, I got my first ‘real’ job out of college — the first one with a 401K and health insurance — as a technical writer for a software/hardware company. It was one of these major-domo, do-everything jobs. I was the only non-programmer. And it was fascinating. It was multifaceted, and I learned more about computers than I ever thought I would.”
Porter explains his 1990 decision to leave Kansas City in several ways. He says the weather was beginning to depress him. His remaining grandfather, Edward Hall, had died; and he explains that though he by then had told his parents about his sexual orientation, “The big thing about coming back to San Diego as an openly gay person was, ‘Don’t do it while your grandfather is alive.’ I thought he could have handled it,” Porter says with a shrug, “but that was their take and I honored it.” After Hall’s death, however, Porter says he realized “that I had had a good time growing up with my parents, and if I wanted to have some good times with them as an adult, it would be a wise thing to come back.”
His brother Steve offered him a job working as marketing manager for Porter International, the family customs brokerage and freight-forwarding business. Ross says when he started, he figured he would work at that job for the rest of his life. “And it didn’t turn out the way I expected.” He explains that the customs industry was changing fast, beginning to dictate that brokerages either seek highly automated global volume or become very specialized boutiques. “And we were a mid-range, small-market-dominant broker.” He says the upshot was that his family began to work very hard at selling the company and finally succeeded a year ago.
After the sale, he says he was offered some jobs but declined them. (“I’ve turned some great jobs down in my life,” he says with a laugh.) Instead, he took time to do some soul searching. “I’ve never been clear on what I want to achieve for a career. And I find it frustrating, because I know I’m capable of a lot of powerful things. And I fear I won’t be in a position to effect them. But now I’m on that trail again.”
He says he finally concluded that “for my life work, what I’d like to do is develop some additional awareness on the part of San Diego that the future here includes Tijuana. And that by growing together, we can have a position on the global map. And by going our separate ways, we will be in a position of economic decline. How do you make money at that? And what’s the title for somebody who does it? I still don’t know. I’m seeing a counselor, and I’m talking to my boss about it.”
He acquired the boss in March, when he began working for San Diego Dialogue, a think tank affiliated with UCSD. “'their mission is to bring issues to the local public-policy agenda that are of long-term importance to the region and which are either (1) not now being addressed by public bodies or (2) are stagnating or on dead center.” There Porter is the administrative assistant. “I’m secretary par excellence,” he sings, adding that the post reminds him of the temporary job he had at the Kansas City Art Institute. “I loved it. I loved the boss. I loved the work. I loved the academic interplay.”
He admits that his many career turns have rattled him at times. "There are dragons that I fight. They say, ‘You’re not achieving. You’re nothing, nobody, nowhere.’ And my resume doesn’t look that good. People look at it, and they go, "Oh...uh, a generalist....’ ” Porter dissolves into mirth. “You know, that line between generalist and dilettante is all too thin. The straight As [that he got in high school] gave me credibility as a generalist. If only there was a method of grading after college, I’d probably do pretty well.”
When he’s asked about the ultimate. Porter doesn’t skip a beat. “You mean besides president of the United States?” The question of whether that goal still appeals to him does seem to startle him. “Gosh, sure,” he answers. “I could do that job. Yeah. But how to get there from here? Forget about it!” Instead, he says the ultimate for him now probably “would be to leave a public legacy — something of meaning behind me. Changing the world.
“I was an achiever,” he reflects. “But that wasn’t my highest shining hour. I read a very interesting book a few years ago. Remembering Denny, by Calvin Trillin. Trillin was a Kansas City author who went to Yale and knew this guy Denny there. They were in the class of ’57. Denny was gay. He was a big, big achiever at his high school, and everyone thought he was going to be president of the United States. But he killed himself, and it was a good cautionary tale for me. The thing is, Denny never achieved what everyone thought he would. He achieved, but not near to the level he or others anticipated. And his stagnation became self-destructive. So it was really good for me to read that and to realize that self-destruction is a force in everyone’s life, and I need to honor my own self-destructive impulses and not let them get the better of me. By acknowledging them and giving them some space, I can go on.”
MAUREEN HOSSFELD EDMOND STILL SOUNDS PROUD of what she said in her valedictory speech, “Changes in Education in the Next 100 Years.” “I was disappointed in the way education had gone since my parents were in school. Their essays were amazing, and their way of thinking seemed so much more mature than what was coming out of the high school. I thought if this trend continued, we would be producing a bunch of zombies. So my theme was that you have to be willing to get back to basics. And guess what they’re saying now?”
She’s a woman of average height and weight whose wavy, auburn hair is shoulder-length. The delicate facial bone structure, the deep-set blue eyes, the light dusting of freckles ail give her a prettiness that matches her quiet, serene demeanor. When she becomes animated — usually when talking about God and his role in her life — it’s a little startling.
God influenced her early drive for good grades, she asserts. Raised a Catholic, “There was an emphasis on excellence in my family because everything we do reflects back to the Lord.” At Emory Elementary School in Imperial Beach, she always belonged to the highest reading and math groups, though she had social difficulties, she discloses. “I was a fat kid. When I started junior high in the seventh grade, I had gotten really big. Finally my mother told me about a friend who was going to Weight Watchers, and I said I would give it a shot. I used to set up chairs before the meetings to pay for the two-dollar weekly fee. And I lost the weight I needed to lose and for the most part kept it off. It was just a matter of applying myself. A lot of things are that way.”
At Mar Vista High School. “I tried to keep pretty,” she says. “I think other kids probably had more of a normal life than I did, because of my choice of friends. I hung out with the kids in accelerated classes, and my studies took a higher priority than going off to movies or ball games or things like that.” At some point, her mother had suggested that getting straight As might lead to a college scholarship, something that Edmond says she coveted. She got a few small ones when she was accepted at UCSD (“I wanted to stay fairly . close to home”), though not as much money as she had hoped for. Still, that summer between high school and college, “I thought I was going to have some great career,” she recalls. “You know, I was going to be a doctor. Or at least a dietitian.”
Freshman year shocked her. “It was one of the toughest environments I’ve ever encountered,” she says today. “It’s a really prestigious school, even for undergraduates. Being a valedictorian is not unusual; all these people are brilliant. You’re in with the cr£me dc la creme, and there’s a lot of stress that goes along with that, a lot of competition. I’ve never seen people work that hard, and the ones that don’t quite make it, they get real upset. There’s more people jumping off buildings up there because they feel that they’ve failed.”
She says panic and a sense of failure gripped her when she took physics in her second semester. Though she had aced the subject in high school, “College was another matter. I just didn’t understand it; they were using math equations I’d never seen before.” A test phobia “beyond belief’ further inhibited her. At the end of the course, she says she just told herself, “ ‘Okay. Let go and let God.’ I wasn’t even born-again at that point. But I said, ‘Let go and let God.’ And I did finally pass the test and got a C for the course.” She assumed that her struggles with that class were a sign that she wasn’t cut out for a career in medicine. But she continued to struggle at UCSD through a second year, becoming anoretic in the process. She finally decided to transfer to a program at San Diego State that would lead to her becoming a nutritionist.
“The major [in home economics] was actually a lot more work than I thought it would be,” she says. “But I felt more at home there. It was more like a family.” Her personal domestic situation had also changed by then, as she had married an engineering graduate she’d met and dated at UCSD. Edmond says it was after she graduated from State two years later that they began to have problems. She wanted to go to Colorado State University for the additional studies she would need to become a registered dietitian. But he refused to move, and she wound up putting her career goal aside. Instead, she worked odd jobs until she heard that her husband’s company was looking for technical writers. She brought the company president a writing sample, “and he said, ‘Looks like all the words are spelled correctly. Can you start Monday?’ "
Edmond says she did well at the work and expanded beyond it, learning to test the company’s software. Fourteen years ago, she went to work as a technical writer again for another local software firm. Today she’s still there, but she’s no longer married to the engineer. “We didn’t have a Christ-centered marriage, and it just fell apart,” she declares. “And he was brilliant. He earned 70K a year as a director of engineering, plus he got quite a bit of money off stock. But where were we going with this? What were we going to accomplish? I thought the emphasis went the wrong way. To me, money wasn’t it.” After her divorce, Edmond says she experienced a brief rebellious period during which she chose to live with a man she’d met at work. But she had a religious epiphany while attending a Catholic prayer group, and she persuaded her lover to begin accompanying her to a little nondenominational church. There he too “was saved,” and the two got married. " That was five years ago, and it’s been wonderful ever since,” she says, eyes shining.
She and her husband now have two little boys, one aged 3 and one 18 months old. Edmond wishes she could be home with them full-time, though she says the loss of her income would force them to give up their house in Mira Mesa. Not that she’s unhappy at work. She says she likes the writing (about software compilers for embedded systems). “I work now with a Ph.D. who does some of the documentation. I he other person has a master’s degree. And I’m the one with only the B.A. But you know what? We’re all working the same job at the same level. I’m really very happy with the way things turned out.”
She thinks achievement still matters to her but “in different ways. When I see my children pick up a new skill that I’ve been teaching them, that’s an achievement. Or, my sister recently called and told me she's given her life to the Lord. That was something! We’d been praying for it for quite a while.” As for Edmond, she says the ultimate for her “would be to keep growing in my relationship with Christ and see where that leads me. There’s places he’s already led me that I never thought I would go. I never thought I would marry my second husband. And then the change in him is like night and day. He knows God. He knows Jesus now. There’s always something happening. Another mountain to climb. Another challenge to overcome. Always. Always. It’s very exciting. That is life for me. And you can’t learn that in school.”
She says the straight As she got back in high school “helped show me I was capable of accomplishing something if I wanted to. But in the end, it didn’t amount to much. It didn’t make me happy. It was an accomplishment and it was neat. But it wore off real quick. You get out in the real world, and you find out what’s it’s really worth. I don’t even put it on my resume anymore.”
Author’s Note: I wasn’t scientific about selecting the valedictorians profiled for this story. In 1976, San Diego County contained more than 60 high schools, public and private, and I contacted only 15 of them, seeking to track down valedictorians who remained in Southern California and would agree to be interviewed. A few of the school personnel declined to help, but most provided leads. Following these, I discovered that some of the valedictorians had scattered widely. La Jolla’s Class of 1976 honored five top young women, for example, but all have moved away. (One’s a doctor of physics working for Hewlett Packard’s research lab in Silicon Valley, one has a Ph.D. in English but has decided to work as a freelance academic editor in New York City, one’s a lawyer in upstate New York; a fourth got a degree in entomology from UC Davis and taught high school for a while but now teaches the three eldest of her five children at their home outside Philadelphia; and the fifth got two degrees from Stanford and an MBA from Harvard and now is an independent marketing consultant and cares for her four children. Other valedictorians eluded me because of name changes or lack of forwarding addresses. I wound up talking to a dozen, in person or by phone.
I learned that, to the extent to which they went to college and got good grades, San Diego County’s 1976 valedictorians are typical, according to at least one scientific study that has been done. The Illinois Valedictorian Project has now followed the academic and nonacademic lives of 81 Illinois high school valedictorians for 15 years. In a 1995 book about the study, Lives of Promise, author Karen Arnold reports that the valedictorians “far exceeded the educational attainment of even their high-abilitv classmates.” Every single one of the Illinois group entered college, and on the whole they “succeeded magnificently in college academics."
Not only in school have the Illinois valedictorians fared well. “Just as the stereotypes of the one-sided academic grind or the obsessed genius are myths for high school valedictorians, also false is the conception of academic achievers as troubled individuals effective only in school,” Arnold writes. “With rare exceptions, valedictorians are notably healthy, successful, content, psychologically well-adjusted adults." That’s not to say that all are prestigious professionals. Ten of the 81 Illinois valedictorians last year were filling nonprofessional positions: service representatives, bookkeepers, and retail and banking workers, Arnold says. One is a farmer. Six women (five of whom hold graduate degrees) were working as full-time homemakers. A handful of the valedictorians have also struggled with major challenges; early parenthood, alcoholism, mental illness. But, “The complete list of deep problems is short,” Arnold writes. “Overall, the incidence of alcoholism among the valedictorians is far lower than the usual estimate of one in ten adults; the rate of mental illness approximates national averages.... Most importantly, even exceptionally troubled valedictorians face directly the challenges of work and love. Even they succeed."
On the other hand, none of the Illinois valedictorians “has yet reached the very top of a profession, become famous, or made revolutionary contributions to a domain of endeavor.” A few still may do so, Arnold says, though she points out that there are reasons why most probably won’t “Academically capable men and women almost never follow a single-minded interest from childhood into careers,” she writes. “top-grade earners demonstrate their talent within a system that prizes breadth; superb students are practiced at succeeding even in arenas they find unappealing. Valedictorians possess the ability, motivation, and credentials to prosper in a wide range of occupations. But being able to do almost anything is not always a blessing. Top students can easily find themselves dutifully performing in careers they do not particularly enjoy.”
Interviewed by phone from her home in Boston, Arnold says she’s found “a great deal of glee and sour grapes among the vast majority of people who were not valedictorians. The reaction is, ‘Oh look, those aren’t the people who are eminent, and isn’t that great. I knew they were just grinds all along.’ Which is not what my research shows. It does show that this isn’t the place to put your money for creativity and mold-breaking eminence, but people have really pounced on it and said, ‘See? It doesn’t really matter that I wasn’t valedictorian.' ” Arnold says she wonders if this reaction doesn’t reflect the American tendency to attribute success to ability, rather than hard work. (Asians tend to see it the other way around.) “I think we (Americans) like to feel that if we bothered to lift a finger, we too could soar. And we tend to denigrate persistent hard work all the time. We don’t want to hear in fact that it’s the latter that gets you places.”
Jeannette De Wyze, for many years a Reader staff writer, is author, with Allan E. Mallinger, M.D., of Too Perfect: When Being in Control Gets Out of Control.