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What does it take to be a high school valedictorian these days?
Here & Now’s Jeremy Hobson asked three valedictorians, who say their friends, their parents, their surroundings and some very special teachers motivated them to develop the drive in school that got them to number one.
All three students, who are graduating this year, already have very specific plans for their futures.
Jordan Thomas is 17 and grew up in Newark, New Jersey, He acknowledges that Newark can be a tough place but he considers himself lucky.
“You have that advantage of not being like many other children in the sense of being sheltered,” he said. “You learn that you will have to grow up quickly in Newark.”
Thomas is going to Princeton next year and plans to major in political science.
“I realized my passions and my strengths are more centered on the responsibilities of becoming a lawyer,” he said.
Thomas said that, aside from being a hard work, a big part of his success and bright future has just been being a normal teenager.
“Although I was valedictorian and I was always involved in community service and getting involved in my AP classes, I definitely made sure that I definitely had that social interaction, and I always made friends with everybody in the class,” he said. “I was always one to want to attend the parties and to really get involved in that sort of aspect of high school as well. But my core group of friends, aside from everybody who was starting the parties and everything, always knew that, at the end of the day, there’s a time to have fun, there’s a time to party, there’s a time to go out, to go to the movies, but at the end of the day, make sure that the homework is done, make it’s done right, and make sure you’re ready for the test the next day.”
Note: This is the first of three conversations. Two more interviews with valedictorians will air later this week.
JEREMY HOBSON, HOST:
And since it is high school graduation season, we wanted to hear from some of the students at the top of their classes. In the next few days we'll hear from valedictorians at three public high schools - one in California, one in West Virginia and today, one in Newark, New Jersey.
The student's name is Jordan Thomas. He is 17. He grew up in Newark, and he's graduating from University High School in a few weeks. He joins us from WBGO in Newark. Jordan, welcome and congratulations.
JORDAN THOMAS: Oh, thank you. It's a pleasure to be here.
HOBSON: Well, how did you get to be valedictorian there. What was the journey like for you?
THOMAS: It was one that definitely required a lot of commitment and definitely required me to change some of my habits from middle school because I had sort of acquired some bad habits, such as not studying or not doing homework, I guess.
Once you get into eighth grade, you feel like you're starting to get more liberties. You're getting older and so you start to acquire some bad habits. So it was definitely a journey that required me to break some of those, and...
HOBSON: Well, how'd you break them?
THOMAS: Well, I think it was the motivation that was definitely acquired after the heartbreak of not being valedictorian in eighth grade. I have sort of one of those motivational stories that I always try to tell other students in middle school before they make the same mistake.
So I came into my school in seventh grade. And for a while, I was at the top of my class. I was doing fantastic - honor roll, straight A's all the time. And then I get eighth grade and unfortunately, as is all too typical of young students, I got comfortable. And I thought, this is easy. I don't have to apply myself in the same manner as I did before, and my grades began to slip.
And when it came time for graduation, I had slipped all the way from valedictorian of the class to third place and didn't even receive a chance to speak at graduation for that. So that motivation and that sort of heartbreak that I got from not being valedictorian definitely made it a lot easier to break those bad habits and to sort of guide me in high school for that ultimate goal of getting what I wanted since eighth grade and being valedictorian.
HOBSON: But it's probably pretty hard to keep that motivation all through high school with all the distractions that there are. How did you do it?
THOMAS: I think that I'm really lucky that I had a very strong group of friends who never really involved themselves in all of the other distractions that are available in high school. And one thing that I really take pride in and that I've always been commended for is my ability to be a very down-to-earth sort of normal student.
Although I was valedictorian and although I was always involved in community service and getting involved in my AP classes, I definitely made sure that I definitely had that social interaction, and I always made friends with everybody in the class. I was always one to want to attend the parties and to really get involved in that sort of aspect of high school as well.
But my core group of friends, aside from everybody who was starting the parties and everything, always knew that at the end of the day, there's a time to have fun, there's a time to party, there's a time to go out, to go to the movies. But at the end of the day, make sure that the homework is done, make sure it's done right and make sure you're ready for the test the next day.
HOBSON: What would you say is the most important thing you've learned in a class in high school?
THOMAS: I think that - and I didn't really understand the value of it then, and I don't think anybody really does until later when they see it. But I really loved my junior year English class. That's my favorite class, had my favorite teacher in it.
The whole high school curriculum of English, I think, was the most valuable sort of experience that I had in high school and really learning how to write effectively. It just has implications in every facet of life, like how well can you write, and then how well can you speak. And I feel like the two are really correlated.
HOBSON: Which is why you want to be a lawyer?
THOMAS: Yes, it is. Absolutely. I love argumentation. I love writing. And I've always been fascinated by law, which is a funny story because for a while I was telling people I wanted to be an aerospace engineer. So what a turn that was.
THOMAS: And that definitely required some very serious conversations with mentors and with parents deciding what was the best option for me after I decided not to be an aerospace engineer. But I realized that my passions were definitely more centered and my strengths really were more centered upon the responsibilities of a lawyer.
HOBSON: Now, I have seen your picture 'cause I can't see you in person right now, Jordan. You're in New Jersey and I'm in Boston. But I have seen your picture, and you do have a huge Afro.
THOMAS: Yes. That's a conversation starter all the time.
HOBSON: Yeah, OK. So why did you decide to go that route?
THOMAS: It's really a number of things. And I don't think it always was. But as I've sort of matured and I've gotten a broader sense of an understanding of my community and of myself as a person, it's begun to mean more and more for me.
But there's really some central sort of reason behind why I have an Afro. And I think the first one is it's a representation of my individuality as a person. Like I said, as I've matured, I've started to sort of come into my own and realize who I am as a person. And I've also begun to embrace the sort of individuality and accountability that comes with getting older.
And I think that it's also a symbol of my nonconformity. I've always been a person that realizes that there are certain standards in society and that there are certain ways you need to conduct yourself. Of course, you want to be mannerful. You want to be virtuous. You want to be professional. But I don't believe that every standard and paradigm in society has to be followed the way that it's expected to be followed.
And I've always been a nonconformist. And I think that going back to the civil rights era and just the phenomenal things that were accomplished by the nonconformists and the activists then really is a testament to why I keep it now because I want people to remember that there are certain standards, but you don't always have to adhere to them strictly.
HOBSON: Who's your hero?
THOMAS: I have several. But definitely, of course, I'm going to go with the sort of common answer - my mom and dad always will be my heroes. They always have been.
My junior year English teacher, like I said Mr. Hood, is his name. And he's just been such a phenomenal influence on me. People at times call us twins, not because we look alike. He happens to be Caucasian with blond hair. And like you mentioned, I'm African-American with an Afro. So it's definitely not a phenotypic sort of twin experience there, but just the way that we speak. He's had just such a great influence on me. He was...
HOBSON: Did he teach you the word phenotypic?
THOMAS: No, I learned that in AP biology. But he taught me very many words. Me and him, we always had that sort of relationship where I'll go up to him with a word - it's like, Mr. Hood, what does this mean? Or, Mr. Hood, I learned a new word, and, you know, we'll discuss the origins of that word and everything. So definitely, I mean, we really are twins when it comes to the personality. He definitely is my hero.
HOBSON: Now, you're going to Princeton, but you grew up in Newark, which is a tough place.
THOMAS: It is. There's definitely a lot of things going on in Newark right now that are unfavorable and that - Newark does sort of have that stigma of being inner-city, underprivileged, violent and all of those other sort of descriptions and adjectives that are attributed to Newark.
I feel like at the end of the day, all of that that's going on makes you a stronger person because I feel when you're in the middle of that, you start to adapt to your surroundings and you start to learn that not only are there certain factors that are causing that - and so you sort of get this sociology sort of perspective behind it - but I feel like you also learn that, you know, this is real life.
You learn that you have that advantage of not being like many other children, in the sense of being sheltered. And you learn that you're going to have to grow up quickly in Newark. And I think that in some ways, of course, there are going to be the disadvantages of living in Newark. But I feel like it's sort of a trade-off because you do have those sort of maturity and sort of sociological perspective enhancement sort of benefits to it as well.
HOBSON: Jordan Thomas will graduate from University High School in Newark, New Jersey, as the valedictorian this year. Jordan, thanks so much. Best of luck, and congratulations.
THOMAS: Thank you.
HOBSON: I'm still impressed, Robin, that he knows the word phenotypic.
ROBIN YOUNG, HOST:
Everybody knows that word.
HOBSON: That's part of the 17-year-old curriculum at this point. It gives me hope for the future. And by the way, we've got a picture of Jordan up at our website hereandnow.org.
YOUNG: He just is - he's just flying. He looks great. Take a look.
HOBSON: Good for him. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.