Cum laude: with or without praise

Graphic by Schessa '12

It’s a sunny spring day in March and girls have returned to school rejuvenated from spring break, only to stumble into what seems like a typical All-School Meeting but is actually the one where pride is crushed under embarrassment and dreams may or may not be shattered: the cum laude assembly. The tension in the room is palpable as the select group of junior and senior girls stand up to halting applause.

Cum laude is a national organization that recognizes juniors and seniors whose GPA is in the top 10 percent or top 20 percent of their class respectively.

This year, the awkward spotlight was extinguished and in its place Danna Drori ’91 took center stage with an inspiring speech about surviving cancer and her love of learning. Was the cum laude assembly missed? After all, girls in Middle School used to crane their necks for a look at the girls they aspired to become, and some members of the community thought the assembly appropriately recognized academic accomplishments.

However, due to the discomfort surrounding public recognition of cum laude, Head of School Barbara Wagner and faculty cum laude members—who were inducted into cum laude in high school or Phi Beta Kappa in college—met in January and decided to invite a speaker in place of the ASM. They decided to continue the tradition of a dinner for cum laude members and their parents, and Wagner will publicly introduce the cum laude girls at the end of the year awards ceremony.

“The first thing is to honor and recognize these girls who have achieved so much at the school,” Wagner said. “The second is to acknowledge that there is some discomfort around it and try to make it a comfortable and celebratory thing where people can really enjoy it and not feel conflicted about it.”

Wagner also held a luncheon on Apr. 19 in her garden for faculty and student cum laude members to discuss the issues surrounding the cum laude assembly and brainstorm ideas for the future. Wagner is planning on reviewing these new ideas next September to formulate how the School will recognize cum laude in 2012. But are these changes a step in the right direction?

Does my GPA define me?

While students are inducted into cum laude based on an objective factor—grades —some argue that the meaning of the award is easily distorted, causing students to arbitrarily designate some girls over others as intellectually superior.

Co-Director of College Counseling Michael Heeter said that this impartial measurement of academic success should make the process less sensitive. And yet students who didn’t make cum laude feel the distinction is incredibly personal. Despite the school’s efforts to alleviate tension, some students said that replacing the cum laude assembly with Drori didn’t lessen some girls’ feelings of inferiority.

After the assembly on Mar. 14, cum laude members had lunch with Drori to “have something special” while avoiding the dreaded public recognition, according to Wagner. Maddy ’12 said although the girls weren’t introduced at the Drori ASM, the school was still abuzz about who made cum laude and who didn’t.

“When going to the lunch that day, it wasn’t like we were embarrassed but we definitely found each other and quietly slipped away,” Bayer said.

Cum laude member Kat ’12 said that she feels uncomfortable because she doesn’t believe that her GPA reflects her passion for learning and that students often misconstrue the meaning of this academic distinction.

“The problem with cum laude is that we present it as something more than just GPA. We present it as a love for learning, intellectual inquiry, academic drive, when in reality that isn’t necessarily representative of your pure grades. The problem for me is mixing the two entities together,” Kat said.

While cum laude is intended to acknowledge hard work and success in the numerical sense, other awards given at the end of the year—including Unsung Heroine certificates, departmental awards and book awards—praise students for the eager and positive energy they bring to campus.

According to English instructor Sarah Wolf, teachers and administrators struggle to balance recognition of academic achievements and a thirst for knowledge.

“The idea here is we have awards that allow faculty and staff to highlight girls who really do have a love of learning and habits of mind that stand out, but cum laude is truly numbers oriented. For me, I’d rather you as an individual pursue a passion and a love of learning than fight for a grade,” Wolf said.

Heeter said that compared to the school he used to work at, Hawken School, Marlborough takes cum laude more seriously.

“Girls care a lot more about getting in or not, and when they don’t get it they’re much more upset. Anxiety and competition are very ramped up here,” Heeter said. “I’m not making a judgment about that, just an observation.”

It’s not the recognition: it’s the academic recognition

Some students blame the anxiety surrounding cum laude recognition on the constant race to good grades and college acceptance letters. While the School does give awards for arts and athletics, academic awards tend to invite more tension because many students believe that the former aren’t as competitive or significant, though that is not necessarily the case.

Julia’11 said that students hold cum laude in higher esteem than arts and athletics because they believe academics carry more weight in college admissions.

“I think we all focus so much on college that academics and academic recognition is a big part of that and has an effect on that. Whereas recognition in athletics or the arts might not have as great a tie to the college process and is less of a sore subject,” Julia said.

Contrary to popular belief, however, Heeter said that whether or not a student is cum laude does not play a major role in college admissions and that other activities, like arts and athletics, can actually help.

“The intangible things are what can make or break admission decisions at different colleges. It’s just how a student has excelled within her environment. It has nothing to do with cum laude,” Heeter said.

Art History instructor and Cum Laude secretary Lu Wenneker said she thinks that because the school often recognizes students involved in arts and athletics, girls that excel in academics deserve the same type of celebration.

“At the awards ceremony when little Sally gets an athletics award everybody cheers. Why is there not the same response when cum laude is announced?” she said. “It’s too bad that the students don’t feel comfortable making as big of a deal about cum laude.”

According to Wenneker, the goal is to find a way to recognize the girl who puts her energy into academics and the girl who works hard in arts or athletics equally.

India ’12, on the other hand, said she believes that non-academic accomplishments should not be considered equal to academic accomplishments.

“I think in arts or sports, it’s a talent. Some people can draw and some can’t, some can play tennis and some can’t but everyone here can write an essay and everyone here is smart. No one has a specific talent for school,” India said.

But Physical Education Department Head Julie Napoleon said she disagrees.

“Recognition in sports and the arts versus academics is kind of the same thing for me. Doing well in school is still a talent,” Napoleon said.

Sarah ’11 also said that she feels academic awards and arts or athletic awards should be treated in the same way.

“If girls happen to be in the top 10 or 20 percent of the class I think they deserve to be acknowledged for all of their hard work,” Sarah said. “If this is supposed to be a community, we should be supporting each other instead of tearing each other down.”

Can’t we all be special?

Some argue that the unwarranted inferiority felt by girls who were not recognized during the cum laude assembly reflects a national trend that today’s teenagers are accustomed to receiving awards for everything they do.

A recent guest speaker in the American Studies class discussed how the Millennial generation, which includes all Violets, is considered entitled for having received false and constant praise throughout childhood.

Alexandra ’13 said Millennials act so deserving because they expect recognition for everything they do, no matter how minor.

“We’re used to being given a trophy even if we lose. We’re babied a lot and therefore more and more people are graduating college and coming home to live with their parents,” Alex said.

According to performing arts instructor Gleason Bauer, the discomfort at the cum laude assembly stemmed from girls’ reaction to being deemed special or different. Bauer said other students should not * feel devalued for not making cum laude.

“It’s a little bit like anything we do that’s closeted. It’s a little bit like being homosexual or poor. There’s this way in which we don’t want to talk about these things because we just assume that any difference equates some kind of being better than. While there is a way in which society values certain things, internally we all know we have equal value,” Bauer said.

Although students’ internal value is not determined by cum laude, Wolf makes the point that students should not be recognized for everything they do.

“I don’t think we’re ever going to be the school where everybody gets an award. There are some schools where everybody is a winner. This sounds really cynical, but sadly I don’t think that’s life and I don’t think that’s Marlborough,” she said.

Wagner said that it’s difficult for Marlborough girls to accept the fact that not everyone can be cum laude. The inclusive spirit at the School encourages recognition of all accomplishments, no matter how small, making cum laude makes girls feel awkward with the extra attention.

“It’s never been an entirely comfortable situation for the girls who are being recognized, and in fairness probably not entirely comfortable for other students in the school either. People feel honored and they appreciate the recognition because they’ve worked really hard. I also think they’re kind of ambivalent about it because they know everybody else works so hard too,” Wagner said.

Kat said she felt embarrassed when receiving the cum laude award last year for her academic accomplishments because she knows there are other girls at Marlborough that are as deserving as she is.

“I tend to be uncomfortable, not because I think that people shouldn’t get recognized for academic achievements but because at the school everyone is so focused, smart and driven it seems hard and unfair to select only a small percentage of people,” Kat said.

Sarah, on the other hand, said that although it’s true girls work hard here, that generalization doesn’t apply to everyone at the School.

“We’re hesitant to recognize academic achievements because there’s this feeling that every girl at Marlborough is smart and every girl at Marlborough works just as hard so it’s not fair to do that. I don’t want to sound cruel, but that’s not true. There are some girls who do better than others and there are some girls who work incredibly, incredibly hard. This is a distinction and recognition they deserve. I think we should get rid of the mindset that just because every girl at Marlborough works hard we should not recognize cum laude girls,” Sarah said.

Maddy said she thinks recognizing cum laude makes sense because not everyone can be talented in the same thing.

“We’re all so different. Everyone has her own strength. The world is not necessarily always fair. When you get into the real world people are going to excel at certain things. If we don’t accept that from early on, we’re stuck in a false sense of reality,” Maddy said.



*Please note this correction of the mistake in the print copy of the UltraViolet