Thursday, May 29, 2008

What sweet hell (in academia) is this?

Someone tell me if the schoolyard was this screwed up when I was in high school 20-plus years ago? Because there are two stories that seem to indicate that something is topsy-turvy in the educational system. Specifically, that the meek get stomped on and that excellence can cock you up.

In Dallas, a young woman named Anjali Datta should be celebrating her extraordinary achievement. Not only did she finish at the top of her class at Grapevine High School, she may have done so in record fashion, earning a GPA of 5.898, which is believed to be the highest such average in the school's history. Yet Anjali isn't the valedictorian of her school - which, in this case, also comes with a one-year scholarship courtesy of the state of Texas. What's her crime? Was she caught cheating? End up pregnant? No, Anjali's offense is that she's graduating a year early. Under the policy of the school district, a high school valedictorian "shall be the eligible student with the highest grade-point average for four years of high school."

Yep, because Anjali was literally too good for the room, she's losing out on this once-in-a-lifetime honor and all that it entails. The prize - and the scholarship - are going to the student with the next best GPA, a mere 5.64. And you know the school district knows it's in the deep water, because they're bending over backwards to keep this from being a larger firestorm it already is (not to mention, perhaps, trying to keep it out of a local courtroom). They've made up a title for Anjali, "Valedictorian - Three-Year" (are they kidding?) and even offering her an opportunity to address her 470 classmates at graduation ceremonies - you know, just like a real valedictorian.

My high school class was nearly as large as Anjali's, and I busted my ass to get valedictorian - and there wasn't even an automatic scholarship on the line in my case. I ended up fourth, along with a truckload of academic honors - and yet I was annoyed, pissed off at myself. And I lost - if you want to put it that way - but I lost fair and square. I can't imagine how Anjali and her family are feeling now, and no fake titles or token doodads can ease that hurt. If I were her, I would tell the district to stick that "Valedictorian - Three-Year" certificate where the sun doesn't shine.

At least Anjali will land on her feet; with that GPA and the press generated by this stupid controversy, she'll be awash with scholarship offers, maybe already is. And a 5-year-old named Alex Barton may end up OK as well in the long run. But how will that knowledge help this poor kid, who was actually voted out of his kindergarten class by his peers, with encouragement from his butthole of a teacher? This lovely story of academia takes place in Florida (duh), where Alex, who had recently been diagnosed with a form of autism, was sent to the principal's office after a disruption in class. When he returned, according to Alex's mother, he was made to stand up in front of the class while his peers were instructed to tell Alex what they didn't like about him. Allegedly the teacher also chimed in with the helpful fact that she "hated [Alex] right now". Then - because the class was learning about voting - there was a vote taken, a la Survivor, and Alex was ejected by a 14-2 margin.

The "teacher", Wendy Portillo, said today that the vote wasn't intended to kick Alex out of her classroom for good - just for the day - and that she wanted the young boy to hear from his fellow students how they were affected by his behavior. No charges will be filed in this case, but the jury's still out as to whether Alex - or Portillo - will be back at the school any time soon. Meanwhile, Alex and his mother have received worldwide support, including an invite from Dr. Phil to be on his show, and messages from as far away as Iran. Maybe Portillo would be more comfortable teaching there - she sounds like Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's type of instructor.

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