Part of me doesn't want to write this post. I'm afraid you'll all think I'm arrogant to include my title as valedictorian of my high school class as one of my thirty pieces. I'm afraid that maybe I am arrogant to call attention to it.
But I can't help but think that if this series is really about the 30 most defining experiences and people in my life, being the valedictorian has to be up there somewhere.
Of course, now that I am thirty and have been out of high school for twelve years (yikes!), no one really cares that I was a valedictorian. It's not on my resume anymore, and I rarely talk about it. If I do, it's to tell the story of the drunken classmate who ran into me on the boardwalk during senior week and gushed with enthusiasm, "It's Abby Martin...the freaking classvictorian."
All that to say I'm not writing this post to convince you that I'm super cool and important because I happened to have the highest GPA of the 200 or so students graduating in 1998 in my small Pennsylvania town. If I ever had delusions that being valedictorian was cool, they pretty much vanished with the "classvictorian" comment. And I'm certain that if I'd gone to school in my current home of Fairfax County, where the schools are bigger and academic programs are stronger, I'd have been lucky to graduate in the top ten or twenty percent of the class.
What I do want to say though is that being the valedictorian did shape me, for better and for worse. Allow me to explain by going back to the beginning of my educational career.
I was home schooled throughout elementary school and only began attending public school full time in the eighth grade, a transition that just happened to coincide with my family's leaving the church we'd been part of my whole life. Though I wouldn't fully realize or be able to name it until years later, these two major changes, along with the all the normal unhappy realities of adolescence, ended up making my teen years a particularly difficult period for me.
You wouldn't have known it from the outside though. I was a straight-A, honor roll student, newspaper editor, Fellowship of Christian Athletes president, and yes, eventually, valedictorian. And in many ways, I was happy in these roles, relished the recognition, the constant reinforcement of awards, praise from teachers, and high grades.
I think though that I used these roles and titles to fend off the emotions I didn't know what to do with - the loneliness of being a newcomer and missing my old friends, the constant confusion about how to fit in and be cool, even the spiritual doubts that I didn't yet know I had.
Being an overachiever game me an identity. I might not have been the prom queen or the basketball star, but I was someone. I mattered. People noticed me (even if it was only to ask if they could copy my homework or be in my group for a project).
In some ways, I see this as God's kindness to me. I didn't know when I started going to public school that I'd do as well academically as I did, but He allowed me to discover gifts that would make a way for me in an unfamiliar place. This was a real kindness to me.
In other ways though, as I suppose is often true of gifts we've been given, I think I clung too tightly to my academic gifts. I allowed them to define me in a way that only God should have. I didn't know who I was apart from busyness and success, a mentality God's been gracious enough to spend much of my twenties undoing (or at least beginning to undo).
From my vantage point now, I am very, very grateful for the many academic gifts God has bestowed on me, gifts I am deeply aware that I do not deserve. I want to use them well. But I am also less and less interested in being defined by them, by measuring success according to titles and accomplishments. I want to be known and to know myself first and foremost as a beloved daughter of the giver of all good gifts and to rest in His acceptance of me apart from what I do.
When I get to heaven, what I hope to hear is not Abby, Valedictorian, but rather Abby, Good and Faithful Servant.