Graduation Speech: Not Just For the Valedictorian Anymore

Senior Breana Brill saying good-bye to Niles West.

Senior Breana Brill saying good-bye to Niles West.

By Breana Brill

Senior Breana Brill on the graduation speech try-outs.
Senior Breana Brill on the graduation speech try-outs.

Class ranking has always been a tradition for high schools across the nation, but it wasn’t until recently that schools started taking these away. The class of 2014 is the first class from Niles West graduating without this numbered ranking and as a result, there is no designated valedictorian to give a speech at graduation. So, to find a student to fill in that position, Niles West hosted try-outs, open to all students, for a chance to speak at graduation.

A lot of controversy spurred from these try-outs from teachers and students, alike. Some teachers were angry that they were not informed about these try-outs while others, including students, were angry about the concept of try-outs in general.

I believe that their anger is valid because this process was extremely unorganized and bias. There was only one judge at the first round of try-outs, and one person picked out the topic rather than seeking out opinions from other teachers.

According to principal Jason Ness, a second round of try-outs will be held Monday, May 19 where four finalists will perform their speeches to a panel of five judges. While I applaud these last-minute efforts to rectify some of the mistakes made during the first round, perhaps we can learn how to recreate this process for next year.

Since the class rankings are not coming back to Niles West any time soon, instead of complaining about try-outs, we should spend this time reorganizing them for the years to come.

Before I get into how I think we can make these try-outs a little better for the future, I just wanted to cover the general anger about the valedictorian not being able to give a speech at graduation anymore. I really love this idea of giving others a voice at graduation. The reason why Niles West took away class rankings was partially to take away the pressure and to give students a new identity rather than just a number. It’s important that we stick to that type of thinking, even up to the graduation ceremony.

Several students said they are upset that the valedictorian is not able to give a speech at graduation. They believe that this person deserves this position because of all her hard work throughout all four years. Although I do think the valedictorian deserves to get some sort of recognition at graduation, I think giving other students an opportunity to participate is equally as important. There are a lot of students at Niles West that make an incredible difference through their commitment to activities and such, and not just outstanding academics.

Opening this position to other students shows the diversity of Niles West, and how the school isn’t just focused around your number on a test or your grade point average, but also the difference you make in a community. It’s important to recognize these students to show that you can make a difference, and be recognized for it, without being the smartest person in the school. Academics are incredibly important, and I’m not trying to downplay any of the valedictorians’ hard work over the past four years, but people have worked equally as hard in other aspects of their life.

To make these try-outs more fair for the future, English teacher Sharon Swanson had a fair recommendation.

“I don’t think there should be tryouts,” Swanson said. “If, in fact, they’re going to do it with no class rank, then I think teachers should nominate whomever they think fit.”

Nominations are a great idea because it allows for the students who made a difference in the Niles West community to be recognized and given a chance to share how they made a difference during their four years through other outlets other than academics. In the future, there needs to be a lot more communication. The English teachers were never informed about these try-outs, which could have helped a lot of students with the process of writing.

There should also be a panel of judges from the very start. Having only one judge from the beginning is very subjective, which I think is very unfair for an important speech. The panel should be filled with public speaking and English teachers, since they are the most qualified to judge these speeches. In terms of the speech topic, the same panel of English teachers should come up with it together. It’s better to have multiple minds come up with a topic rather than just one.

Although I appreciate the effort of the school to try and host these try-outs for the graduation speech, there needs to be a lot more organization and less subjectivity for these auditions. Hopefully the school learned their lesson and plans on improvement for next year.