Valedictorian Alexandra Otto, 17, from Egg Harbor City, leads the class to the church during St. Joseph's High School Graduation held at St. Joseph Church in Hammonton.

High school valedictorians don’t usually come in pairs, so when Christopher Frederickson,  of Ventnor, and Michael Paule, of Absecon, were named co-valedictorians of the Class of 2013 at the Atlantic County Institute of Technology, they decided to make the most of the honor.

Instead of just speeches, the audience at graduation last week got a performance, as the two strode to the podium together and announced in unison that it was their honor to be the 2013 valedictorian. They then took turns talking about their experiences and their hopes for the class, ending with a back-and-forth list of advice.

“We wanted it to be unique,” Paule said, “something that people would remember.”

Being named high school valedictorian is an all-too-brief honor for four years of really hard work. While the performance of athletes is open for public view, the work of academically talented students is largely done at home or in libraries, late at night, and with no cheerleaders.

The reward for such a high honor is one last assignment — writing a speech to present at graduation, something not all welcome. Alexandra Otto, of Egg Harbor City, the St. Joseph High School valedictorian, noted her lack of enthusiasm for public speaking but said it was yet another life lesson in overcoming fears.

“God gives us the opportunity to face what you fear,” she said.

Writing and delivering a good valedictory speech is no easy task. Professor Tara Crowell, who teaches a freshman seminar in public speaking at Richard Stockton College, said a successful speech focuses not on the speaker, but on the audience.

“I always say to my students that the number one fear people have is public speaking,” she said. “But you have to become audience-focused and realize it’s really not about you.”

Crowell said a good valedictory speech entertains, informs and motivates.

“You want (the graduates) to look to the future, to challenge them,” she said.

Valedictorians for the Class of 2013 at high schools in Atlantic, Cape May, Cumberland and southern Ocean County took on the challenge with grace, humor and yes, some nerves. They thanked parents and teachers, reminisced about championships won, pranks played, and late nights spent preparing for tests.

Atlantic City Valedictorian Dominique Voso  of Margate reflected on how the school came together to support each other after Hurricane Sandy. 

Michelina Hesse used the metaphor of seeds being planted to acknowedge her peers’ status as the first graduating class at the new Cedar Creek High School in Egg Harbor City.

Mainland Regional’s Morgan Rann, of Somers Point, and Paule and Frederickson at ACIT, recalled the construction that sometimes disrupted their classes but left them with a far better school.

Sacred Heart High School’s Katherine O’Rourke, of Vineland, gave the very last valedictorian speech at the school which has closed. She bemoaned how the school was considered too small to survive, but said it was that intimacy that made it meaningful. Wildwood Catholic survived a closing scare, but not without challenges that Valedictorian Elijah Neville  said toughened them.

“We showed we were stronger than we thought,” he said.

Some valedictorians picked clever or funny themes. Kasey Keller, of Estell Manor, pretended he forgot to write a speech and put one together in the car on his way to the Buena Regional High School graduation, basing it on the songs he heard on the way, including “We start from the bottom now we’re here” by Drake, and Justin Timberlakes’s “Yesterday is history. Tomorrow is a mystery.”

Lower Cape May Regional’s Victoria Mann, of Cape May, told of how a soccer coach taught her to “flush” her mistakes and move on, a suggestion she passed along to classmates as they make their own mistakes.

Cumberland Regional Valedictorian Justin Seay, of Upper Deerfield Township, used a poem about the dash that appears between the two dates on a tombstone to ask his classmates how they plan to spend their life, or “dash” and to challenge them to make their dash count.

One local valedictorian, Cara Zampino from Absegami High School in Galloway Township, almost didn’t get to give her speech, titled “From Rugrats to Celebrities” at all. After being rained on, the students were moved inside to get their diplomas.  Zampino read her speech indoors, but only to classmates and not the stadium filled with families and friends.

“It was disappointing,” she said, explaining she had started working on it the end of March, asking classmates that they wanted to hear her talk about. “But I was happy the class got to hear it. It really was for them.”

Contact Diane D'Amico:


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