A fundamental part of being a human being is the desire to be remembered. Climbing mountains, developing an invention, creating art, striving to be a celebrity, even having children are some of the human endeavors undertaken with at least a bit of one’s mind on chasing immortality. With the Summer Olympics the past 2 weeks, we have seen a bit of that as well.
Athletes who have dedicated so much of their lives to perfecting their technique and preparing their minds so that they can achieve a peak performance during their brief time on the stage. For most, just getting to the Olympics is a huge accomplishment and a validation of their supreme efforts. For a few, only gold medals and world records will suffice. The chance to leave your mark and be recognized as an all-time great. So often we hear the athletes asked about what it feels like to rise so high and get everything you every dreamed off. But rarely do you hear about what it feels like to get past by.
A common phrase in sports is “Records were made to be broken” and it is so often true. every day it seems that some “untouchable” number is being stalked and assaulted by the next generation of athlete. So often during these Olympics have we seen world records and career accomplishments past by. We celebrate the Michael Phelpses and the Missy Franklins but do you remember whose records they past? (I’ll give you partial credit for remembering that Michael Phelps now has more all-time medals than “That Gymnast”. With each record falling, another person who thought they would be remembered forever falls back to the pack.
On the occasion that the record is monumental enough, the previous record holder might be brought out and asked about how they feel. Inevitably, the soon-to-be vanquished target is gracious and talks about how they didn’t expect their mark to stand forever and that the ascending champion is worthy of the mantle he or she is about to assume. But that is what they say for the media and the outside world. What are they thinking on the inside? To themselves? In the quietest of quiet moments? I never imagined that I would ever be able to provide an answer to that question, but I recently discovered that I have been unceremoniously pushed aside, pulled back with the masses to forever reside in anonymity.
I don’t mention it all that often, but I was the valedictorian of my high school class. Not only that, but I did it by getting an A in every single class (don’t worry, I won’t strain my arms with all of the back patting that I am currently doing!). My favorite part of the whole experience was that I got to give a speech at the Honors Banquet a few weeks before graduation. I got to give my grandfather a special shout-out, I made a few jokes (that actually got some laughs) and I most importantly, I got to give some recognition to the salutatorian. He was a heck of a great guy, played football and basketball and he would have easily been valedictorian at probably 95% of the high schools in Chicago. He just happened to pick the one where some dope ended up getting straight A’s.
At the Honors Banquet the salutatorian got to speak before the valedictorian. Interestingly, we had unknowingly formed a mutual adoration society by both spending a portion of our speech talking about how great each other ways. There was one thing that he said that stood out from the rest of his speech and caught me completely by surprise. He declared to all of those in attendance that, unless they changed the system some day, I would go down in Mount Carmel history as the student with the highest GPA.
While everyone else gave this a nice round of applause, I sort of sat there dumbfounded. Despite the fact that this was my GPA and my grades, never once had I even contemplated anything close to this. Of course, once he said those words, it was pretty obvious. Like a gymnast increasing her degree of difficulty, I had gotten the highest possible grades and taken the maximum amount of honors classes. Someone could tie, but no one would ever be able to surpass me.
But despite the obviousness staring all of us in the face, I had never even contemplated this. I believe this mostly stems from the fact that being valedictorian was never my ultimate goal, let alone getting straight A’s. I truly just wanted to put my head down and do the best that I could do. People would frequently ask me if I would freak out if I ever did not get an A. I am pretty sure that people were expecting me to answer with a twitch and obsessively blurt out a resounding “YES! I just couldn’t HANDLE IT if I had one B. WHY WOULD YOU SAY SUCH A THING!!! You are gonna jinx it!”
But honestly, getting straight A’s was not particularly important to me. After the streak of high marks had gone on for a few semesters, I did recognize that it would be cool if I could make it happen. To me, it was kind of like a perfect game in baseball. I didn’t take the mound hoping or expecting to throw a perfect game, but after I took one into the 6th inning, I figured I might as well complete this thing.
Since graduation day some 17 years ago, I haven’t thought a whole lot about having the top of GPA of all 15,000 or so students that have walked the halls at 64th and Dante. On occasion it would pop into my head for a moment and bring a smile to my face. But mostly, this fact just rattled around undisturbed in the deep recesses of my brain along with the starting line-up of the 1982 Cubs and the Romanov Dynasty. Until I checked my email inbox the other day.
The current principal of the school had sent out an email trumpeting all of the wonderful things happening at Mount Carmel and all of the records that fell this year. Our football coach became the winningest coach in Illinois history. There were a second number of donations to the general fund. And oh yeah, the highest GPA in Mount Carmel history was recorded by this year’s valedictorian.
For a record I didn’t know existed and wasn’t fired up to break until someone told me about it, I certainly became quite deflated upon learning I had been passed by. I alternated between being desponded about losing my one claim to fame and feeling utterly ridiculous for caring so much about it, mixed with some occasional bitterness that the email made no mention of the previous record holder. How did I get to this place?
Upon a final look at the scoreboard, my old record of 4.67 had been blown away by a 5.09. It turns out that the key phrase in that salutatorian speech was “unless they change the system”. Turns out my high school had converted to a system which included pluses and minuses. This year’s valedictorian had gotten all A+’s and had maxed out on honors classes. Records were meant to be broken.
In the end, it was a good 17 years on top. And while I may be starting to fade into the background of all of the other excellent students who have graduated from my high school, I can still take solace in knowing that at one point in time, I had done something pretty cool. Of course, I don’t actually know when they changed to a plus/minus system. Maybe someone passed my mark a few years ago. If so, please don’t tell me. I have barely adjusted to being #2. Who knows how I’ll respond if I have already fallen out of the top 5?