PAXTON — Kent Penicook thought 10 valedictorians was the norm for a high school's graduating class.
"I always thought this was kind of normal, like all schools have this kind of thing," said the Paxton-Buckley-Loda High School senior. "I would think, 'Oh, I wonder how Gibson City's doing with their 10.'"
Penicook now knows he is in rare company — very rare.
For the first time in school history, 10 seniors with perfect 4.0 grade-point averages will walk the stage tonight at PBL to receive their diplomas, with each honored as 2014 valedictorian.
"We've never had 10, so this is a record-breaking group," said their guidance counselor, Kristin Oyer. "It is usually around three or four at the most, so this is way beyond what we normally have."
What makes these valedictorians special goes beyond the sheer number of them, however. All challenged themselves with difficult courses, and all took on that challenge while somehow finding time to explore their various extracurricular interests.
So, it was no easy task to earn perfect grades the last four years for Penicook, Hannah Bruens, Melanie Foss, Brittany Heyen, Allison Hofer, Jennifer Hustedt, Paxton Johnson, Allison Kuester, Elise Snyder and Garret Waterstradt.
"They're a very smart group, a very hard-working group," Oyer said. "You can't say enough about them, because they've all taken very rigorous courses from freshman year to senior year. They were in (Advanced Placement) classes all the way through, so they've worked hard every single year."
They not only worked hard, but together.
"I think that's a reason there's so many of us — we're all helping each other stay on top; we're not trying to outdo each other," Hofer said. "If we see somebody struggling in class, we definitely try to work together and help each other."
It helps, also, that the 10 students are longtime friends.
They had been joking about graduating together at the top of their class since freshman year, Johnson said. Then as the years passed and they kept seeing themselves tied for the honor, they got more serious about it.
After each semester when they received their grades, they would check to make sure nothing had changed.
"'Hey, are you still No. 1 with me?'" they'd ask each other.
"It's been all 10 of us (at the top) throughout high school," Waterstradt said.
Waterstradt and Snyder provided a bit of humor when asked how they were able to be so successful academically.
"We cheat," Waterstradt said with a smile.
"Maybe it's something in the water," Snyder said.
The students then found a way to take the question seriously.
"It's kind of difficult," said Waterstradt, who has maintained perfect grades despite a rigorous schedule as a tumbler that has taken him to competitions worldwide. "You just definitely have to take advantage of any free time that you get."
Their commitments leave them little free time in the day.
"When other people are going out and doing fun things, a lot of times you just have to keep in mind that what you're doing is a commitment that you chose to make," Johnson said.
"A lot of us are friends, so when we do hang out, we do a lot of homework together," Hustedt said.
Their lives will be changing when they leave for college. They expect the coursework to get harder. They expect the challenges to be greater. They expect to have even less time.
"I think I'll switch from being involved in everything and anything to having a part-time job earning money to pay off the (college) debt," Hustedt said.
"I think another thing is the adjustment to the fact there will be a lot more people who are better than you," Penicook said. "So that's going to be like, 'OK, I'm not at the top of the class anymore.'"
Will Brumleve is editor of the Paxton Record, a News-Gazette community newspaper. For more, visit paxtonrecord.net.