In a Class of Their Own

May 19, 2002|By Peter Jensen and Stephanie Shapiro | By Peter Jensen and Stephanie Shapiro,SUN STAFF

Oh, to be valedictorian of your high school class, to bask in the limelight, to take the graduation podium and speak your mind to peers and parents alike, to know you are the best, A-number one, king of the hill.

Few ever get the experience. That's the point, after all. But what does it all mean on the day after, a year later, or 35 years later? Is it your passport to success or an early peak, from which the rest of your life will be a quiet stroll downhill?

As we enter another season of high school graduations across Maryland, we decided to check in with eight former valedictorians and find out what they remember of that fateful day -- and what impact, if any, being valedictorian had on their lives.

Creating the world that she desired

Brenda Chunn Shepherd

Class of 1986

Old Mill High School

To those who say that you can't predict your life after high school, Brenda Chunn Shepherd has news for you.

More precisely, she has an article. On June, 8, 1986, The Sun ran a story about her graduation from Old Mill High School in Millersville. In it, she predicts the following:

1. She will attend Duke University.

2. She will double-major in biomedical engineering and electrical engineering and go into a high-tech career field.

3. She will marry and take time off from her career to raise children.

Sixteen years later, all three things have come to pass. Luck, coincidence or foresight? More likely, it was the willpower of one young woman from Anne Arundel County.

"I may have just gotten lucky," says Shepherd, 34, who grew up as an only child. "I guess I also wanted control over everything I did."

Shepherd met her husband at a Duke fraternity mixer. For a time, they lived in North Carolina. She helped test computers and medical equipment for Underwriters Laboratories, the nonprofit safety testing company.

But when her first son Kyle was born, she decided to stay home. Today, he's 7 years old and has a 4-year-old brother Jake. The family lives in Maitland, Fla.

It may be telling that Shepherd still has a copy of her valedictory speech. In it, she mentioned the Challenger space shuttle disaster and the Chernobyl nuclear reactor accident. She spoke of the quest for happiness, of taking pauses in our lives, of making people a priority, of being thankful.

"Together we can create the world we desire," she said.

'All you go through is worth it'

Kion D. Bolden

Class of 2001

Walbrook High School

When Kion D. Bolden started school, he didn't talk. His teacher, concerned that he was learning disabled, called Bolden's mother, who explained that Kion was simply shy. The teacher took him into another room and quizzed him. "I knew everything she was teaching. I just didn't open my mouth and say it," he says.

A computer science whiz, Bolden was the top student in Walbrook High School's business technology program last year.

In a late-night phone call to Bolden and his mother, his computer science teacher broke the news that he was also class valedictorian. "When he told me, my mother bust out crying," Bolden says.

In his graduation speech, Bolden told the class of 2001 that their school had been through difficult transitions, and that "Our education was like scars on our bodies, evidence to generations and classes to come that all you go through is worth it in the end."

For the student who once didn't talk, it was an eloquent tribute to the hurdles both Bolden and his classmates had overcome. As a class leader and in many other ways, Bolden had found his voice.

Bolden, 18, is completing his freshman year at Bowie State University. He plans a busy future, one that includes a Ph.D. in computer science, a teaching degree and seminary school. He commutes to college by MARC train from his West Baltimore home.

He's also writing an inspirational book, called The Power Within. "I give a testimony of my life, of friends I'm very close to. I give a look into my family and into how I managed to go through public school being a Christian."

'I don't know if I ever felt that important or big'

Bruce Taylor

Class of 1967

Gilman School

Bruce Taylor made it to the top of his class -- but he's still feeling a little underwhelmed by the experience.

Sure, it was an honor. He gave a brief address to his fellow graduates in the Gilman School class of 1967. His parents were proud. But what legacy did it leave? Maybe just an engraving of his name on a plaque somewhere.

"I don't know if I ever felt that important or big," recalls a modest Taylor, 52, a psychiatrist and head of Taylor Manor, a private, family-owned psychiatric hospital in Ellicott City. "I don't remember what I said. I think it had to do with thanking everyone. I remember keeping it to three minutes."

What Taylor remembers most about his Gilman days actually took place one year after graduation. While a freshman at Haverford College in the suburbs of Philadelphia, he mailed his first donation to Gilman.

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