Don't Mess With the Best

High school noodge wants to stand alone


High school ultra-overachievers have always alarmed me. The high school years bring so many new experiences worth savoring—though I'll demur in listing them—that an all-consuming focus on perfect grades, college, and the future seems to be missing the point. So it's with some trepidation that I take the side of a New Jersey überachiever who's suing her school because she didn't want to have to share the title of valedictorian with other classmates.

Here's the story, which was reported in today's Los Angeles Times. Blair L. Hornstine, 18, is a student at Moorestown High School in New Jersey. Because she was diagnosed with a chronic-fatigue syndrome-like illness, she spends half the day doing conference courses at home. This has helped her to score the highest grade point average (GPA) in school, because she's able to take (and excel at) more advanced-placement (AP) level courses than would normally be available. Naturally, the other overachievers, who dutifully spend eight hours daily suffering at their desks in whatever classes the school offers, complained, and administrators decided to split up the valedictorian honor. Fair enough.

But the story could also be read as a droll commentary on the state of public education. First, it's none too reassuring that Moorestown High School's best student is the one who stays home half of every day—even if you take into account that "best" here means best GPA, which isn't necessarily the only indicator of aptitude. Hornstine isn't just a grade grubber, however; she also co-founded a program that raised $30,000 in food for the needy and found a way to raise funds to pay for 10 harelip operations for Chinese kids. (Yes, this girl definitely scares me. I can only hope she'll find a place for me in her entourage when she has achieved world domination—assuming she doesn't keel over from exhaustion first.)

Then there's the fact that the school, because of Hornstine's exhaustion, tried to convince her to drop all of her Advanced Placement courses. I sympathize with the point of view that teens shouldn't be killing themselves to get into Harvard (and Princeton and Stanford, in Hornstine's case). Nevertheless, I certainly wouldn't counsel them not to overachieve if that's what they want to do. We need those fanatics to pick up every one else's slack, for the greater good of humanity.

The school painted Hornstine's father as the villain. According to the Times article, "They say that the student's father, New Jersey Superior Court Judge Louis Hornstine, told [Superintendent Paul J.] Kadri during a meeting that he would 'use any advantage of the laws and regulations' to give his daughter 'the best opportunity to be valedictorian.'"

That kind of obsession with the vaunted valedictorian title seems absurd, especially when it comes from the father, not the student herself. But I wonder if the school might be just as confounded if Daddy had said he'd look for loopholes that would allow his daughter to receive the very best education possible. To me, that's being a smart parent. If your tax dollars are paying for a massively bureaucratic, one-size-fits-all public school, you may as well make the best of it.

Hornstine is asking for $2.7 million for her injuries, enough to keep her in the Ivy League through her 40s, if she pleases. Claiming that kind of damage almost invalidates her position—"hear this little violin playing, Blair, just for you?"—but I'm almost with her on principle.