By Silvio Laccetti
High school graduations offer up the possibility of new beginnings to all attendees — not just the students getting their diplomas.
Every participant, if he or she thinks deeply and looks beyond the platitudes and facades of the ceremony, can find greater meaning in the event.
Consider the various awards given to seniors.
With so many distributed, it’s easy enough to not give one much more thought than another. But have you ever stopped to consider how a particular award came to be? By whom was it established, and why?
Many such awards call attention to overlooked issues, underserved demographics, or long-ago individual achievements. Go ahead and study one of these awards; it could lead to you becoming more active in your community.
In my case, having retired after four decades of teaching, I decided to establish a modestly endowed nonprofit foundation to address educational issues close to my heart.
The foundation, as of this commencement season, has begun giving awards and other recognitions to high school graduates in a variety of areas. The way the awards are structured demonstrates how even small acknowledgements can contain big hidden meanings.
One focuses on the salutatorian, the second-ranked member of a graduating class, who often gives an opening speech of greeting at commencement. Some schools give salutatorians no recognition. That’s where the Sally award, as I’m calling it, comes into play.
You can’t take a closer look at the salutatorian issue without confronting many of the problems in our education establishment and our culture in regards to being No. 1.
When you consider factors ranging from grade inflation and honors-course considerations to adolescent angst and the pressure to succeed, it’s not surprising to see more and more schools doing away with class rankings altogether.
Examples of extreme positions in this debate include a school in Tulsa, Okla., recognizing two valedictorians and two salutatorians, one set for students graded on a 5-point scale, the other for students on a 4-point scale. One high school in Arlington, Va., once had 117 valedictorians out of 457 graduates. And the Ivy League’s Dartmouth last year named eight valedictorians and seven salutatorians, each of whom had gotten a single A-minus during their time on campus.
And yes, civil lawsuits contesting rankings are not uncommon.
On the cultural front, we no longer give much value to second-place finishers. In sports, it’s common to see distraught runners-up, and the NCAA basketball tournament, which used to include a third-place contest, doesn’t bother with it anymore.
In giving out Sally awards, I’m taking a stand: Rank is important, grades do matter, and the highest levels of achievement — including second-place finishes — must continue to be identified and acknowledged.
With that in mind, and being an Italian-American, I decided to create an award for excellence in Italian language and cultural studies. It’s named for Giuseppe Garibaldi, the most important figure in the creation of Italy in the 19th century, who even among Italian-Americans often goes overlooked.
Raffaello, Michelangelo, Leonardo (da Vinci) and Donatello — names well-known by “Ninja Turtles” fans — are far better known than the political and military leader who, arguably, was the first celebrity of the modern age. To promote the legend and legacy of such an historical world figure — he once booked a 50-city tour of England (canceled by Queen Victoria) and was offered a command position in President Abraham Lincoln’s Union Army — I am working with the Garibaldi museum in Staten Island, N.Y., to broaden the award’s reach and impact.
Other awards will follow, including one focused on Native Americans and education in the STEAM fields of science, technology, engineering, art and mathematics.
You get the picture. There are lots of educational and societal issues that need addressing.
I strongly believe awards can make a meaningful difference, that recognition spurs recipients and others to look beyond and beneath the obvious to consider large implicit issues. Hopefully, this year’s high school commencements will be the beginning for lots of new initiatives.
Silvio Laccetti is a retired professor of history and social sciences at Stevens Institute of Technology. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.