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franklin county times

Being valedictorian a family tradition

When you see a cute baby or watch a child make a great catch on the baseball field, you might hear their relatives exclaim things like “Well, it just runs in the family,” but one Franklin County family can say with reasonable certainty that being smart really does “run in the family.”
When Phil Campbell graduate Ashley Mitchell found out she was going to be the valedictorian for the class of 2002, she had no idea that two of her first cousins would also share the distinction with her within the next decade.
Russellville class of 2007 grad Sarah Nichols and fellow cousin Rachel Mitchell, who graduated this year from Russellville, were also valedictorians for their senior classes.
Having one valedictorian in the family is quite an accomplishment, but to have three is just down right amazing, which might lead some people to think that it was a well-thought out plan to have these cousins stake their claim on the valedictorian market. But in reality, it was all just coincidence, especially since two of the cousins didn’t really even enjoy school.
“I’m not sure that any young person enjoys school all the time,” Nichols said. “I did not set the specific goal of being valedictorian. Making poor grades just wasn’t an option for me. If a person has the capacity to be academically successful, he or she should strive to be so, even if there is no promise of an exceptional grade or the opportunity to give a speech that few people will even remember.”
Her older cousin agreed.
“You know people have always said to me, ‘Oh, you make good grades, you must love school,’ but I never cared for waking up that early,” Ashley Mitchell said. “However, my parents were responsible for instilling in me a passion for knowledge, so I guess I have always been a bit of a ‘nerd.’
“I ended up being excited about being the valedictorian, though, because I had serious competition.”
Unlike her cousins, Rachel Mitchell said she enjoyed school and learning new things. But just because she enjoyed school didn’t mean she planned on being the valedictorian.
“I didn’t set out to be valedictorian,” she said. “I just always tried to keep my grades up and do my best on everything whether it was staying on top of my homework or making sure I studied enough for a test.”
The experience of being the valedictorian was exciting, but the girls agreed that the title came with its share of stressful and nerve-racking moments, too.
“I was excited because it is a great honor and something I should be proud of being,” Rachel Mitchell said, “but I knew I would have to make a speech in front of a lot of people and I can be very shy.”
Ashley Mitchell said her nerves didn’t kick in until she was about halfway through her address.
“I lost my place and skipped part of my speech,” she said. “Nobody knew that, of course, but I was having a complete meltdown on the inside.”
“I recall a couple of dogs getting in a fight down on the field during my address,” Nichols added. “Not knowing how to react, I just went right along with the speech. The entire crowd was distracted, so that made me a little self-conscious at the time, but I hardly remember any of it now. I was in such a ‘zone’ while giving my speech, my family basically had to recount this all to me later.”
Even though all three girls agree that being named their class’ valedictorian was an honor and a special moment in their lives, they also agree that sharing the distinction with each other was what really made it memorable.
“I can remember when my cousins both found out they were going to be the valedictorians, so I thought it was very neat for me to share the same title,” Rachel Mitchell said. “Coming from the same family, our parents had the same principles that they chose to instill in us – that education is something that is very important and we should always try our best at everything we do.”
Ashley Mitchell said those principles that all three girls were taught were the real factor in their academic success.
“Really, I wouldn’t call it a coincidence that we all worked hard to achieve a goal,” Ashley Mitchell said. “We have the most wonderful support system. Our family is always together. I haven’t lived in Franklin County for a few years, but when I do come home, it’s like I never left.”
Nichols agreed that their family played a major role in the values they all seem to share.
“All three of us grew up in a family with hard-working, intelligent adults,” Nichols said. “Our parents, aunts and uncles taught us to believe in something more than mediocrity.
“My cousins and I share a grandmother, Frances Mitchell Bowling, who reared five children and instilled in them common sense and the importance of hard work, so I chalk [our shared experience of being valedictorians] up to good genes and common sense.”