Author Topic: EP677/EP450: Valedictorian [Flashback Friday]  (Read 12521 times)

eytanz

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EP677/EP450: Valedictorian [Flashback Friday]
« on: June 16, 2014, 02:49:33 AM »
EP677: Valedictorian (Flashback Friday)

EP450: Valedictorian

Author : N.K. Jemisin
Narrator : Stephanie Malia Morris
Host : Marguerite Kenner
Audio Producer : Adam Pracht

This story originally appeared in After: Nineteen Stories of Apocalypse and Dystopia
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There are three things Zinhle decides, when she is old enough to understand. The first is that she will never, ever, give less than her best to anything she tries to do. The second is that she will not live in fear. The third, which is perhaps meaningless given the first two and yet comes to define her existence most powerfully, is this: she will be herself. No matter what. For however brief a time.

#

“Have you considered getting pregnant?” her mother blurts one morning, over breakfast.
Zinhle’s father drops his fork, though he recovers and picks it up again quickly. This is how Zinhle knows that what her mother has said is not a spontaneous burst of insanity. They have discussed the matter, her parents. They are in agreement. Her father was just caught off-guard by the timing.
But Zinhle, too, has considered the matter in depth. Do they really think she wouldn’t have? “No,” she says.
Zinhle’s mother is stubborn. This is where Zinhle herself gets the trait. “The Sandersens’ boy — you used to play with him, when you were little, remember? — he’s decent. Discreet. He got three girls pregnant last year, and doesn’t charge much. The babies aren’t bad-looking. And we’d help you with the raising, of course.” She hesitates, then adds with obvious discomfort, “A friend of mine at work — Charlotte, you’ve met her — she says he’s, ah, he’s not rough or anything, doesn’t try to hurt girls — ”
“No,” Zinhle says again, more firmly. She does not raise her voice. Her parents raised her to be respectful of her elders. She believes respect includes being very, very clear about some things. Zinhle’s mother looks at her father, seeking an ally. Her father is a gentle, soft-spoken man in a family of strong-willed women. Stupid people think he is weak; he isn’t. He just knows when a battle isn’t worth fighting. So he looks at Zinhle now, and after a moment he shakes his head. “Let it go,” he says to her mother, and her mother subsides.
They resume breakfast in silence.


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« Last Edit: April 26, 2019, 05:43:01 PM by divs »

InfiniteMonkey

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Re: EP450: Valedictorian
« Reply #1 on: June 17, 2014, 12:25:06 PM »
I liked the way the story's historical ironies were laid out over time; that is, not frontloaded all at once. And the deeper meaning of the place of young in society was not lost on me.

I really like the reading by Ms. Morris as well.

skeletondragon

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Re: EP450: Valedictorian
« Reply #2 on: June 17, 2014, 04:24:53 PM »
As a former high school valedictorian, this story intrigued me, but ultimately disappointed me. One thing I really liked about it is the way the culling was sort of an allegory for social pressures of an ordinary high school today - "Don't be dumb, but don't be too smart either." And I guess the theme was centered around conformity, and why people choose to be the nail that sticks out...except that the alternative offered by the people beyond the firewall doesn't seem to really be an alternative to the conformist society within. It's just a society that conforms to a different ideal.

In general, I resist narratives that paint children who succeed academically as special snowflakes who are misunderstood by their communities. I didn't like the way Zinhle seemed to come around to the "beyond the firewall" point-of-view towards the end, and just agreed "yes, you're right, nobody wants me and nobody would fight to protect me" when it seems that when she takes the time to talk to them, her parents, teachers, and friends do in fact care for her. I think the story would have been better if Zinhle had chosen a third option - if, rather than being culled or flunking out, she attempted to start or encourage the sort of resistance Lemuel seemed to think she was capable of.

PotatoKnight

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Re: EP450: Valedictorian
« Reply #3 on: June 17, 2014, 04:55:28 PM »
I've become a fan of Jemisin's work of late, just having finished the second book in her Inheritance Trilogy and being pretty psyched for the third as soon as I get through a few more layers of the to-read pile. I like this one too. One thing I like about this is kind of meta-fictional. The story comes explicitly from a anthology themed around dystopia and the story looks and quacks a lot like the prominent stories of that genre of late. We've got the implacable impersonal technological force picking teenagers for a predetermined fate. But past the surface I think we have, to paraphrase one Merlin: a utopia to some...a dystopia to others. We are dropped into what looks like the last remnant of a pure humanity--the remnants of a Lost Cause, noble but doomed. And that view is true to many that live inside the firewall. But from another perspective we are looking at a sad reserve of small-minded bigots who just weren't ready for a better world, who cling to barbaric traditions like "high school," and whose new bigotries both stem from and reaffirm old prejudices.

What makes this not a simple reverse of the Outer Limits/Twilight Zone twist ending is that the narrator and we in the audience are given empathy for both sides, while not belonging comfortably to either. It's a reminder when we talk about "dystopia" or for that matter about more optimistic futures that life today is dystopic to many, and so was life fifty years ago and a hundred years before and five hundred before that. And that every major societal shift feels like apocalypse to some and the rise to paradise for others.

A good piece with a lot to think about.

skeletondragon

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Re: EP450: Valedictorian
« Reply #4 on: June 21, 2014, 06:33:27 PM »
You know, PotatoKnight's words have made me reconsider this story. I didn't notice it came from a dystopian anthology and I think I would have liked it better if I'd read it there. As a take on a VERY popular genre, it's probably about as original as you can get. I think the most interesting thing is the way the two societies seem to draw their evil from each other. The firewall-people have legitimate reasons to fear those beyond, but by defining themselves in opposition they are pushed into conservatism and stagnation. The society beyond the firewall is more difficult to parse. They are still bitter for what was done to them by the ancestors of the firewallers. They claim technological and moral superiority, but their treatment of the losers in the war suggests they have not advanced as much as they would like to believe. (I'm not sure that the sides are morally grey to the same degree. I have a little more sympathy for the one that currently has ten percent of its children culled every year).  Each side hates and distrusts the other to the point where reconciliation seems impossible. I feel like the story lacked resolution, and that still bothers me a little, but it might've been intentional. It was thought-provoking, and that is definitely a good quality.

PotatoKnight

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Re: EP450: Valedictorian
« Reply #5 on: June 24, 2014, 12:40:51 PM »
(I'm not sure that the sides are morally grey to the same degree. I have a little more sympathy for the one that currently has ten percent of its children culled every year). 

I agree with this point in general, but want to point out in case people missed it in the story--although "cull" sounds like a euphemism for killing, the reality is more complex.

Quote
She changes the subject. “People who get sent through the Wall.” _Me._ “What happens to them?” _What will happen to me?_ “They join us.” Bopping around the world to visit girlfriends. Swimming in an ocean. It does not sound like a terrible existence. But… “What if they don’t want to?” She uses the word “they” to feel better. He does not smile. “They’re put in a safe place — behind another firewall, if you’d rather think of it that way. That way they can do no harm to themselves — or to us."

From the perspective of the Outside folks, they are offering that ten percent a chance at a better life. If they don't take it (and given the horror with which the firewall people regard all this, I have to imagine many don't), oh well, new Meatsuits!  That's not to say that the Cull isn't both culturally genocidal and exploitative. The Outside man justifies the treatment of the firewall folks by saying they don't "act like people," which is damned chilling.  On the other hand, the people on the inside of the firewalls completely deny the humanity of the Outside folks, so these things are running both ways. The fact that the cull does not equal death is of course key to the conclusion of the story--the main character isn't committing suicide. She's choosing to see what the Outside looks like. She's a futuristic version of the one kid to get out of the small town and go to a big city college, only a bit more extreme.

DerangedMind

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Re: EP450: Valedictorian
« Reply #6 on: June 25, 2014, 09:14:01 PM »
I found this story interesting and thought-provoking.

I found myself wondering about the breeding program that the 'others' were performing on humanity.  On the one hand, they were consistently removing the bottom 10% of the population.  It will cause the bottom percentage of students to work hard, as no one will want to be close to the bottom...That should have the tendency to improve intelligence over the long term. It should certainly provide incentive for all students to perform to a minimum standard.

And while the top performing person is also removed, there would be a strong tendency for most people not to perform to their potential.  As well, top performing females would probably tend to get pregnant to ensure that they were safe, helping to increase the number of children of top performing people.

And, as girls can, in general, avoid being culled by being pregnant, I would imagine that there would be a huge number of pregnant girls in every graduating class.  In all probability, the cull would consist mainly of boys, causing a gender imbalance in the society.

You have to wonder what the goal of the AIs really is.... And whether they have different pockets of humanity in different locations with different breeding programmes happening.

albionmoonlight

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Re: EP450: Valedictorian
« Reply #7 on: June 26, 2014, 01:14:43 PM »
I thought that the metaphor for typical high-school life was a bit heavy-handed here.  When I listened, I was only meh on the story.

But some of the comments here have been pretty thought-provoking.  Once I got away from metaphor thinking, the actual world created here, and the moral questions it raises, are pretty interesting.

I think that I'd like to see a few stories set in this universe from the point of view of a few different characters.

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Re: EP450: Valedictorian
« Reply #8 on: June 27, 2014, 09:22:17 AM »
Hmmm.... I had mixed feelings about this story.  As I was listening I quite liked it all the way through, but thinking back on all the details I'm not sure it all holds together.

1.  The people/AI hybrids seem pretty dense when it comes to strategy.  If they were just regular fleshy people I'd maybe give them a pass for just not being that good at what they do (though I'd still be a little skeptical since they have a population of billions and surely SOME of them must be okay at what they do).  I thought while I was listening that they might have a specific strategy in mind for the culling "game" that meshes with the rules that they've laid out, but the conversation at the end convinced me that it was just bad planning for no apparent reason. 
My thoughts when I thought there might be a sound strategy:
--Culling the bottom 10%  encourages people to learn something so that they can at least function and have some basic understanding and everything doesn't just fall into the middle ages.  But that rule alone would encourage many people to strive for their best, and would encourage those smartest people to collude with each other to enhance their own smartness further to protect their friends from the cull.  If you encourage smartness, and encourage collusion between geniuses, you're kind of asking for a revolution.  So:
--Cull the top performer.  Just as an arms race encourages each side to strive and strive and be the best and your power only matters as compared to the others, this has the reverse effect.  The smartest people hold back a little at first, just enough so that their friends might outperform them.  But then when those people start holding back too, then people start holding back more and more at a faster and faster rate until they're doing poorly enough that they have descended into the masses and then just have to worry about not doing the worst.
2.  I don't see how it's beneficial to the people Outside to get only the people who rebel against the rules laid out for them.  That's asking for revolution.
3.  I agree with skeletondragon that it seemed that when she took the time to talk to people instead of just allowing the distance to exist, other people did care for her.  The distance is mostly because they don't feel they understand her.  I get that.  I don't understand her either.  But it really took minimal effort to connect.
4.  I don't understand how one would strive for valedictorian in this setting.  It makes no sense to me.  The pressures against it are so strong.  In the end she got a decent opportunity, but she didn't know that.  I would expect someone so smart to not be so eager to rush headlong into apparent doom.
5.  As someone said, it seems that the outside is not all that different from the inside regarding conformity.

So, I don't know.  I'll give it some more thought.

skeletondragon

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Re: EP450: Valedictorian
« Reply #9 on: June 27, 2014, 10:54:26 AM »
4.  I don't understand how one would strive for valedictorian in this setting.  It makes no sense to me.  The pressures against it are so strong.  In the end she got a decent opportunity, but she didn't know that.  I would expect someone so smart to not be so eager to rush headlong into apparent doom.


I actually thought the story set that up relatively well. Zinhle is a rebellious individualist, and her personal philosophy is based on being true to herself. She is valedictorian because she can be and she chooses to be, perhaps with a deeper root cause of boredom, dissatisfaction, and/or curiosity . The problem is that while this motivation explains why she would be valedictorian when she didn't know what was coming, it doesn't explain why she would then immediately capitulate to the post-humans. Once she starts talking to the AI/person the story goes downhill and I lose track of her motivation.

bounceswoosh

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Re: Re: Re: EP450: Valedictorian
« Reply #10 on: June 27, 2014, 04:51:28 PM »
In general, I resist narratives that paint children who succeed academically as special snowflakes who are misunderstood by their communities.

I identified with the way she reacted to her peers. Minus the frequent beatings - those fortunately were not part of my experience

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Re: EP450: Valedictorian
« Reply #11 on: June 30, 2014, 07:13:37 AM »
I actually thought the story set that up relatively well. Zinhle is a rebellious individualist, and her personal philosophy is based on being true to herself. She is valedictorian because she can be and she chooses to be, perhaps with a deeper root cause of boredom, dissatisfaction, and/or curiosity . The problem is that while this motivation explains why she would be valedictorian when she didn't know what was coming, it doesn't explain why she would then immediately capitulate to the post-humans. Once she starts talking to the AI/person the story goes downhill and I lose track of her motivation.

I guess.  I just found it hard to believe that someone who is clearly so intelligent and goes out of her way to prove her intelligence, chooses the path most likely to doom her.  I would've thought she'd find a different way to prove herself that isn't apparently certain to screw her over.  She's smart, but in a way that makes her go sprinting off a cliff--I don't understand that contradiction.

bounceswoosh

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Re: Re: Re: EP450: Valedictorian
« Reply #12 on: June 30, 2014, 07:25:14 AM »
I guess.  I just found it hard to believe that someone who is clearly so intelligent and goes out of her way to prove her intelligence, chooses the path most likely to doom her.  I would've thought she'd find a different way to prove herself that isn't apparently certain to screw her over.  She's smart, but in a way that makes her go sprinting off a cliff--I don't understand that contradiction.

Plenty of smart people make poor choices. And she is a teenager. Intelligence doesn't protect a person from everything. In any case, I'm not sure it was a cliff. Her options were : live in a world populated with people she can't stand, or explore door number two.

Devoted135

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Re: EP450: Valedictorian
« Reply #13 on: June 30, 2014, 06:58:14 PM »
I like that this was an atypical take on the dystopian sci-fi genre. For me, the commentary on prejudice and how groups of people can become so entrenched and isolated from others was the most interesting aspect of the story. As a result, I do feel like it could have gotten there much more quickly and then explored her choices further. I can understand how she was almost immediately intrigued by the outsider's proposition since she felt (perhaps wrongly) that she had no friends/peers inside the wall. It would be very interesting to follow her through her transition to the outside and see how her opinions change as she learns and sees more of the world.

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Re: Re: Re: EP450: Valedictorian
« Reply #14 on: July 01, 2014, 08:23:39 AM »
Plenty of smart people make poor choices. And she is a teenager. Intelligence doesn't protect a person from everything. In any case, I'm not sure it was a cliff. Her options were : live in a world populated with people she can't stand, or explore door number two.

I guess.  It wasn't that she just made a poor choice, it was that she dedicated her life to the pursuit of a choice that by all evidence appeared to be a poor one.  I didn't get the sense that she or anyone thought that was really a door number two or that the valedictorian wasn't going to be exploited for some terrible purpose--that turned out to not be the case but no one, including her, seemed to question that considering the outsiders' track record.

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Re: EP450: Valedictorian
« Reply #15 on: July 01, 2014, 09:21:29 AM »
I think that the valedictorian test was the outsiders way of trying to find people willing to buck conventions and take chances or who were otherwise different enough from the folks inside of the wall that they were worth bringing out.  That the people they chose happened to also be smart enough to be valedictorian was probably just a bonus.

They did the early intervention in this case because they noticed that a lot of valedictorians were bailing at the last minute.  That demonstrates that it really was a test of will more than a test of intelligence.

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Re: EP450: Valedictorian
« Reply #16 on: July 03, 2014, 03:24:06 AM »
Just taking a moment to duck my head in here and note that one of the biggest reasons I happily chose this story from our submissions (other than the easy fact that N.K. Jemisin is an accomplished author and thus more likely to produce good work in the future) was that Zinhle's reaction was precisely my own, back in the day. 

I won't say I was the smartest kid in my school (because how do you even measure that, really?) but I was pretty far ahead of almost all of my peers.  There was heavy pressure on me to conform, both the negative (those beatings aren't just fictional, y'all!) and positive(ish), from folks like my parents who just wanted me to, y'know, stop being quite so openly weird and scornful of the stupid people all around me so that I'd stop getting beaten up.  As an adult, I can see and appreciate what they wanted for me (and would even give similar advice to another me), but at the time, as an angry and depressed and intelligent teenager, my sole reaction to all of that pressure was, "Oh, you're going to make my life miserable if I don't do like the other kids? BRING IT ON, ***HOLES!"  I made my life so very, very much harder than it needed to be.  If I'd been in Zinhle's shoes, I would probably have done exactly what she did in actively pursuing the valedictorian role.  (Instead of what I actually did, which was get fed up with the idiot artificiality of school and grades and basically stop trying very hard other than acing all normal coursework.)

So yeah.  That part's totes realistic.  Trust me on this.
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Re: EP450: Valedictorian
« Reply #17 on: July 03, 2014, 07:53:24 AM »
I had mixed feelings about this story.  It held my attention and gave me plenty to think about, and a story that makes you think or polarizes a crowd is a sign of an author taking risks.  To quote Wayne's world:

"I mean, Led Zeppelin didn't write songs that everyone liked.  They left that to the Bee Gees."

I could not get over the fact that the Valedictorian was the only non-conformist-special-snow-flake and it annoyed me.
Much like Scattercat, my own high school experience played a role in this.  We had several valedictorians, and I was not among them.  Due to an unweighted grading system and my own laziness, I didn't get the best grades, but I took and passed more AP courses than anyone I knew and entered my freshman year in college as a sophmore.  Link that with rarely studying, doing most of my homework 30 minutes before class (if I hadn't lost the assignment), and almost failing calculus because I solved the problems completely different than anyone else and the teacher didn't understand my work and thought I was cheating.  I was also a non-conformist in that I was a record holder in two different sports, and hung out with athletes, nerd, and popular kids alike, refusing to belong to any group, which in the end brings resentment from the more hateful parts of all cliques.

So my major problems were the over simplfication and association of intelligence with grades, the over simplifcation of just about everyone else in society, and the treament of Zinhle as a one-of-a-kind.

My feelings may also be a reflection of my current attitude towards stories were the main character is portrayed as better/smarter/more artistic/whateverer/more athletic/deadlier... than anyone else on the planet. 

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Re: EP450: Valedictorian
« Reply #18 on: July 03, 2014, 08:44:13 AM »
Just taking a moment to duck my head in here and note that one of the biggest reasons I happily chose this story from our submissions (other than the easy fact that N.K. Jemisin is an accomplished author and thus more likely to produce good work in the future) was that Zinhle's reaction was precisely my own, back in the day. 

I won't say I was the smartest kid in my school (because how do you even measure that, really?) but I was pretty far ahead of almost all of my peers.  There was heavy pressure on me to conform, both the negative (those beatings aren't just fictional, y'all!) and positive(ish), from folks like my parents who just wanted me to, y'know, stop being quite so openly weird and scornful of the stupid people all around me so that I'd stop getting beaten up.  As an adult, I can see and appreciate what they wanted for me (and would even give similar advice to another me), but at the time, as an angry and depressed and intelligent teenager, my sole reaction to all of that pressure was, "Oh, you're going to make my life miserable if I don't do like the other kids? BRING IT ON, ***HOLES!"  I made my life so very, very much harder than it needed to be.  If I'd been in Zinhle's shoes, I would probably have done exactly what she did in actively pursuing the valedictorian role.  (Instead of what I actually did, which was get fed up with the idiot artificiality of school and grades and basically stop trying very hard other than acing all normal coursework.)

So yeah.  That part's totes realistic.  Trust me on this.

I get your point of view, but your situation wasn't her situation.  You could find out what life is like after high school, what life is like outside of your town.  I'm not saying that pushing for your greatest potential in that kind of situation is easy, but there's a clear incentive for it--if you can push through the worst years of your life with good grades that might be enough to help you push through college, try to get your dream job whatever that is.  I know that was a huge reason why I kept pushing in high school despite there being more convenient social reasons not to push--I wasn't rich enough or well groomed enough to be with the popular clique and in our school the only other clique were the people who were content spending the rest of their lives in that flyspeck of a town.  I could've fit in more easily with the latter group if I hadn't tried to hard, but instead I ended up in neither group.  Because I could see beyond that boundary and see that what I did then had an effect on what I could do after.  Even in retrospect, I don't see anything smarter that I could've done than what I did--those were the worst years of my life, and now they're behind me forever and that never makes me sad.

Her situation is very different despite some obvious similarities.  From their point of view, and given their past history with the outsiders, the valedictorian presumably ends up dead, tortured, exploited in some way.  She can't talk to any previous valedictorian because they're gone.  She can't see the outside world because of the wall. 

albionmoonlight

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Re: EP450: Valedictorian
« Reply #19 on: July 03, 2014, 09:33:27 AM »
Just taking a moment to duck my head in here and note that one of the biggest reasons I happily chose this story from our submissions (other than the easy fact that N.K. Jemisin is an accomplished author and thus more likely to produce good work in the future) was that Zinhle's reaction was precisely my own, back in the day. 

I won't say I was the smartest kid in my school (because how do you even measure that, really?) but I was pretty far ahead of almost all of my peers.  There was heavy pressure on me to conform, both the negative (those beatings aren't just fictional, y'all!) and positive(ish), from folks like my parents who just wanted me to, y'know, stop being quite so openly weird and scornful of the stupid people all around me so that I'd stop getting beaten up.  As an adult, I can see and appreciate what they wanted for me (and would even give similar advice to another me), but at the time, as an angry and depressed and intelligent teenager, my sole reaction to all of that pressure was, "Oh, you're going to make my life miserable if I don't do like the other kids? BRING IT ON, ***HOLES!"  I made my life so very, very much harder than it needed to be.  If I'd been in Zinhle's shoes, I would probably have done exactly what she did in actively pursuing the valedictorian role.  (Instead of what I actually did, which was get fed up with the idiot artificiality of school and grades and basically stop trying very hard other than acing all normal coursework.)

So yeah.  That part's totes realistic.  Trust me on this.

I get your point of view, but your situation wasn't her situation.  You could find out what life is like after high school, what life is like outside of your town.  I'm not saying that pushing for your greatest potential in that kind of situation is easy, but there's a clear incentive for it--if you can push through the worst years of your life with good grades that might be enough to help you push through college, try to get your dream job whatever that is.  I know that was a huge reason why I kept pushing in high school despite there being more convenient social reasons not to push--I wasn't rich enough or well groomed enough to be with the popular clique and in our school the only other clique were the people who were content spending the rest of their lives in that flyspeck of a town.  I could've fit in more easily with the latter group if I hadn't tried to hard, but instead I ended up in neither group.  Because I could see beyond that boundary and see that what I did then had an effect on what I could do after.  Even in retrospect, I don't see anything smarter that I could've done than what I did--those were the worst years of my life, and now they're behind me forever and that never makes me sad.

Her situation is very different despite some obvious similarities.  From their point of view, and given their past history with the outsiders, the valedictorian presumably ends up dead, tortured, exploited in some way.  She can't talk to any previous valedictorian because they're gone.  She can't see the outside world because of the wall. 

Your response makes me think that the story was possibly trying for the metaphor.  Trying to show that when you are in the middle of the high school peer-pressure cooker it can seem impossible to see outside of that little world.  I imagine in a small town it can feel that way to a lot of kids--especially when a lot of the adults around seem to have not left the high school mentality.

I went to high school in a moderately-sized city, so it was always possible to see the world outside of the walls of the school and the town.  Maybe not as easy in flyspeckville.