In high school, if you get to the top of the academic heap, they call you the valedictorian, and if you almost get there, they call you the salutatorian. Maybe you get to make a speech.
That's how it works most places.
But over at East Lake High School in Tarpon Springs, the crowd of super-smarties is so large they risk a catastrophic collision of mortarboards.
We're talking three vals, two sals.
Five kids — most of them pals, all feisty competitors, all smarter than you and me — piled up at the top of the heap.
Getting here, they report, was part numbers game, part elbow grease. But ask them about the journey and they can't help but mention one another.
• • •
The two girls knew they had something in common.
It went beyond AP American history, Spanish IV, world history honors and anatomy — all classes they shared.
They compared notes, compared grades, discussed college.
On the flag football team, Kelly Douglas played defense, Avery Fox played offense. They went toe-to-toe against one another during practices. Kelly against Avery. Avery against Kelly.
"It's like fate always throws us together," Avery, 18, said.
On Friday it happened again.
When Kelly, 17, got on stage to deliver her valedictory speech, Avery wasn't far away, one of two salutatorians in a class of 493. Her GPA lagged behind Kelly's by just seven one-hundredths of a point.
In some ways, their friendly rivalry helped make the journey to top of the class more enjoyable.
"I probably would have done what I did either way," Kelly said. "But it was nice to have someone to have competition with."
• • •
Getting to the top of the class is about calculation, heavily dependent on what courses you take when and how many of the courses are weighted more heavily for advanced material.
Be sure, the top tier kids are paying attention.
Who made a B and slipped from the running? Who asked to have an elective course grade dropped? Who didn't take high school-level math in middle school?
"I think by the time they hit the 10th grade, they're pretty aware of where they are," East Lake principal Bob Poth said.
Avery was on the football field early this year when Kelly surprised her with the news.
"Isn't it funny that you and I are val and sal?" she said.
Avery was confused. She was sure that she wasn't in the running. She hadn't taken high school-level math in middle school and, daringly, she picked a nonweighted journalism course as an elective.
Kelly told her another student didn't do as well as expected in a course.
Avery jumped for joy.
"Kelly's always keeping track," she said.
• • •
Brandon "B." Moores and Sam "Shaffe" Shaffer have been friends since first grade.
They played on the same little league baseball teams, the same football teams.
They went to the same elementary and middle schools. They picked classes that counted for high school credit and compared results. They both enrolled in East Lake's engineering program.
The first time they saw their class rank, Sam said, was when they got their freshman year transcripts.
Both said "1."
Valedictorian dreams ensued.
"We talked about it," Sam, 17, said. "And we said it'll either be one or the other, or it will be both. We were worried it would come to one of us being picked."
The pressure was on to make each class count.
Hello, AP Calculus. Hello, honors world history. Delay nonweighted classes like health and personal fitness until second semester senior year, after the calculations for class ranking are locked in.
"I wouldn't say I went out of my way," Brandon said, "But once I found out, it seemed silly not to do my best."
On Friday, after Kelly finished her valedictory speech, Brandon and Sam took to the microphone.
The two of them were tied at a 4.898 GPA — high enough to make them co-valedictorians for the school's engineering program. The program's salutatorian Bryan Maynard chased them by only four one-thousandths of a point.
Sam and Brandon decided to deliver their valedictory speech together.
"Congratulations, B," Sam said at the end, extending his hand to his buddy.
"Congratulations, Shaffe," Brandon replied and hugged his friend.
• • •
The word "valedictorian" comes from the Latin derivative meaning "to say farewell."
That simple. But every now and then, the pressure by schools to pick just one top grade-getter spurs a heated debate about the risks of placing teens under adult-sized pressures and subjecting them to cut-throat competition.
Thomas Guskey, professor of educational psychology at University of Kentucky, says the single-minded drive to be No. 1 can lead some kids to opt out of extracurricular activities that might otherwise enhance their experiences and spark lifelong interests outside of academics.
Not to mention the social toll it can take on friendships.
"I've seen things like this so often break up friends because the school had a policy that required selecting only one valedictorian," he said.
Guskey likes what happened at East Lake: The top students in the traditional program were recognized. And the top students in the engineering program were recognized. Even if the arrangement did mean a longer-than-usual list of valedictory speeches.
Sam agreed. He and his buddy spent so many years committed to being first, it was scary to consider one of them might be second.
"Once we realized we could tie," he said, "that was a huge relief."
Times researcher Shirl Kennedy contributed to this report. Rebecca Catalanello can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8707.