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Jewish World Review July 17, 2003 / 17 Tamuz, 5763

Jonathan Tobin

Jonathan Tobin
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A Pointless Sacrifice

How did a New Jersey teen come to embody everything we hate about high school?

http://www.jewishworldreview.com | Growing up, most of us knew a Blair Hornstine — a girl or boy who seemed to do everything right, who was always at the top of the class in high school. You know the type — that someone who combines straight A's with relentless do-gooding on the road to Harvard, Yale or some other school most of us didn't get into.

We're all supposed to admire people like that, but the truth is, the vast majority of us can't stand them.

We envy the ease with which they move from success to success in life. And when the inevitable day arrives for a Blair Hornstine to trip over some unforeseen banana peel, the pleasure afforded by the star's commeupance is shared by more people than are willing to publicly admit it.

Hornstine, whose personal lawsuit forced Moorestown High School in New Jersey to grant her the title of the school's sole valedictorian (it was supposed to be shared with another deserving male candidate), has now paid the sort of price for notoriety usually restricted to corrupt politicians and college football coaches who lie on their resumes or go on drunken binges with exotic dancers.

Vilified by her fellow students and townspeople for her willingness to use the legal system to get her way, Hornstine was subsequently exposed as a plagiarist for using published material (including presidential speeches and Supreme Court decisions) uncredited in columns she wrote for the Courier-Post newspaper in Camden, N.J.

WHAT WENT WRONG?

Had she not made headlines as the protagonist in what The Weekly Standard's Jonathan V. Last aptly called the "Bobo version of the Texas cheerleader case," it is doubtful that anyone would have taken the trouble to investigate her work and expose her.

So instead of collecting the laurels due to someone whose high school GPA was a gaudy 4.689 (on a scale of 1 to 4), and who collected enough extra credit and volunteer projects to fill volumes, Hornstine wound up skipping graduation to avoid being jeered at by her peers. Worse than that, she was subsequently tossed out of Harvard University on the grounds of ethical misconduct two months before her freshman year even started.

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Nobody seems sorry for Blair or for her father, the Honorable Louis Hornstine, the New Jersey superior court judge many blame for the whole mess. Blair deserves to live her life in peace. Whatever her faults or those of her family, she hasn't murdered anyone that I'm aware of, and has already been punished far more severely for her transgressions than some other type-A overachievers who've done far worse (what comes to mind is a certain ex-president named Bill Clinton, whose biography by The Washington Post's David Maranis was titled none other than First in His Class).

But before this bizarre chapter turns into a cheesey television movie, it's worth pondering not only what it says about envy and the perils of celebrity, but also about what it seems that we value in our educational system.

Last, who previously attended Moorestown High himself, painted an unflattering portrait of the Hornstines in his insightful July 7 feature on the case. Though she triumphed in the preliminary stages of her lawsuit, the closer you get to the details, the more you get the feeling that there was something odd about the way the system was manipulated by the Hornstines.

Suffering from an unspecified malady akin to "chronic fatigue," which enabled her to study at home rather than attend most classes, Blair was able to maintain a higher average than she could have achieved actually going to school. She also managed to use her plentiful spare time to become a champion volunteer and junior philanthropist.

But, according to Last and others who have investigated the story, few in town believe she has any real disability, and many resent her for resisting the school's attempt to name the student with the second-highest marks — who attended full-time — as co-valedictorian.

Once the suit (which calls for $2.5 million in punitive damages) was filed in federal court, Hornstine become the topic of water-cooler conversation in offices around the country.

Most of these centered on the increasing use of lawsuits to deal the kinds of problems that used to be able to be settled without resorting to lawyers.

ARE THERE SECOND THOUGHTS?

I share those concerns. And, I imagine, Judge Hornstine himself may now be troubled by second thoughts about his decision to plunge his family into this maelstrom of controversy. Like the protagonists of the classic English play "The Winslow Boy" by Terrence Rattigan, the Hornstines must wonder whether their crusade to ensure their daughter was not slighted has cost them far more than the title of valedictorian was worth.

But unlike the play that depicted a family's ultimately successful effort to vindicate the reputation of a schoolboy wrongly accused of stealing, Blair has not won out in the end.

On the contrary, her frivolous use of the legal system backfired when she was accused of an offense that no one had thought her capable of when all of this started.

In the play (which was itself inspired by a true story that occurred just before World War I), we sympathize with the boy's father, who sacrifices his health, finances and the future of his other children for his son's cause. We do so not because his decision is wise (clearly, it is not), but because we share his belief in the importance of the truth, and that redeeming the unblemished honor of his innocent child is a battle worth fighting. He represents the ideal Englishman who prizes fair play and honor above all.

Unlike Ronnie Winslow, Blair and her father have come to represent some of the worst aspects of our society — the desire for empty honors and meaningless school grades, along with a willingness to hurt anyone who comes in the way of such goals.

Blair is undoubtedly a brilliant girl whose charitable work does not merit our contempt. Her plagiarism was a serious offense. But this is a youthful indiscretion that ought not to hang around her head for the rest of her life (as it probably will). Hornstine is no Jayson Blair.

Instead of chortling at her discomfort, we should be thinking seriously about the kind of pressure we put on our kids for high marks or activities that will get them into the best schools.

Perhaps Blair does now stand for all the things most of us once hated about high school. But if we envy the Blair Hornstines we meet in our own youth, then we should remember that their pressure-filled existence and pyrrhic scholastic victories aren't the route we would choose for ourselves or for our children.

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JWR contributor Jonathan S. Tobin is executive editor of the Philadelphia Jewish Exponent. Let him know what you think by clicking here. This past month Mr. Tobin won first places honors in the American Jewish Press Association's Louis Rapaport Award for Excellence in Commentary as well as the Philadelphia Press Association's Media Award for top weekly columnist. Both competitions were for articles written in the year 2002.

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