One of the better journalistic decisions yours truly has made recently, was instead of writing a joint feature on CHS 2020 Salutatorian Andres de la Lama and Valedictorian Brendan Chapko, we’re providing separate stories on both of these outstanding students. Andres was the first of the two scholars I met with, shortly after the class graduation festivities concluded.
The third of four children born to Alejandra Valdez and Carlos Valdez, Andres was born in La Jolla. His siblings include sister Daniela 27, brother Carlos 24 and younger sister Ana, who is a sophomore at CHS. Mom Alejandra runs a laundry in Tijuana, and Dad Carolos is the Chairman of the Math Department at San Diego City College. In addition he also teaches math at the University of San Diego and Southwestern College.
Andres graduated from Coronado High with a weighted grade point average of 4.65, but it was the variety of interests de la Lama pursued which is the real story. A four-year letterman in tennis, he played the important No. 1 doubles position for each of the last two years, earning All-Western First Team honors his junior season with his friend and tennis partner Jake Lamb. This year he was paired with Mauricio Rivero and the entire Islander Boys Tennis Team looked like they were headed toward a successful season before the COVID-19 crisis derailed the 2020 spring prep sports season.
Andres has also played the piano for 13 years. “I couldn’t be in the Coronado School of the Arts because I was playing tennis,” de la Lama explained. “I performed outside recitals and I have written for the Coronado Times since I was a freshman. I did the crime blotter and was the sportswriter for them as well.”
Which leads us to de la Lama’s plans for the fall. “I’ll be attending Princeton, either online or residential. I’ll be studying English with a career goal of becoming a screenwriter. Princeton wasn’t my first choice. I applied to USC for screenwriting, but Princeton was my second choice, and they have a very good creative writing program. I applied for early action and Princeton was the first school I got into. I realized how oriented they were to the Arts, with seminars for freshmen and seniors, and the proximity of Princeton to New York and Philadelphia.”
Like his good friend Brendan Chapko, de la Lama’s most challenging class was 10th Grade English Honors taught by Josh Chow. “It was my favorite class, hands down,” de la Lama said. “Mr. Chow is a very creative teacher, and the class was organized on a literary timeline. We would start in one era and go to the present. He was also very involved in the class, which was discussion based. We learned a lot from each other, and he would connect stories and anecdotes to what we were learning in class. We were very connected as a class and it was also the most difficult class I have ever taken. There was a lot of writing, with essays, creative writing, poetry and short stories.”
As you might imagine, with a 4.65 GPA, de la Lama has done well each of his four years at CHS in the Academic Awards department. His senior year Andres won the Social Sciences Plaque as the top student in that category, plus medallions (Top Five in the class) in English and Math, and a certificate in Science. Add in a Plaque in Foreign Language his junior year, de la Lama took Spanish and French simultaneously, and he was recognized by those departments with an academic award of one kind or another, almost every year at CHS.
On the sports side, de la Lama was best known as a tennis player, but he ran cross country his freshman year, before sustaining an injury his sophomore year. The best opposing player he faced on the tennis court was Sam Rudenberg from La Jolla High School. “We actually played each other a lot when we were younger. We played Junior Team Tennis and were partners. Once we got to high school, we played against each other.”
As for his most enjoyable moment at CHS, de la Lama said, “This may be a cheesy answer, but at the end of sophomore year, we took a field trip with the AP Chemistry Class to the San Diego Zoo. That is one of the hardest Advanced Placement classes on campus. After a very stressful year, and after the AP exam, we wanted to wind down and celebrate everything we had accomplished that year. Grace Kim was our teacher.”
Andres continued on and discussed teachers who had a positive influence on him. “I would say Joshua Chow was my literary mentor. And then Sandra Davis in math. We were very close, and I had her my freshman and junior years. She was very influential in helping create my perspective on life. And of course Grace Kim. Honestly, I have gotten to know her since freshman year and honestly she is one of the best people I know. I will definitely stay in touch with her. She was a very good mentor and one of the most positive influences in my life. She runs a club at CHS called Days for Girls, an international organization that makes hygiene kits for girls in developing countries in Africa and South America. I was club president last year.”
Chapko and de la Lama were both on the CHS Academic Team for four years and served as Co-Captains last year. The Coach of the team was Grace Kim. Andres said of his fellow Co-Captain, “Brendan and I are very close friends. I have known him since middle school, and we’ve been close friends a long time. We still play poker on Saturdays. He’s a very rambunctious kid and he likes to talk a lot. He’s a bit outspoken, brilliant, and he has a very savvy business-economic mind. The program he is entering at Penn and the Wharton School will be perfect for him.”
Touching on the literary end of the world, de la Lama spoke about his favorite book. “In our English class, we read ‘The Blind Assassin,’ by Margaret Atwood. It’s a very powerful book, so complex and incredibly confusing. The entire time I was reading it, I was trying to figure out what the hell was going on. It all comes out together and of all the books I have read, that is the one I pulled the most from. I think she is brilliant.” When asked if he had a personal reading list this summer before matriculating to Princeton, Andres mentioned another novel by Atwood. “I definitely want to read the ‘Handmaid’s Tale.’” When asked if he preferred books or E-books, Andres said simply, “Books because I like to annotate.”
When the Senior Awards ceremony was held two days prior to graduation, de la Lama did quite well. He received the Edward J. Sheil Memorial Scholarship, which comes with a $4,500 per year stipend, for each of four years; the Coronado Tennis Association Sportsmanship Scholarship; the Ruth Martin Mathematics Award and the Salutatorian Medal.
Even when Andres describes his free time pursuits, they sound scholarly. “I spend most of my time writing, I play the piano, play tennis and work out. This summer, I’ve got a job lined up to tutor math at San Diego City College. And this summer I’m going to take some of the online classes on the Master Class website.”
Other positive influences in his life include Isabell Zaller (CHS ’18). Andres said, “She was the Salutatorian from 2018 and she’s now at Princeton. Isabell is a brilliant and well-rounded student, who is playing water polo at Princeton. My Dad has been very helpful in the STEM subjects and he is a very good mentor. And my Mom has been very supportive in my endeavors.”
One of the requirements of being Class Salutatorian is crafting and delivering a Commencement Address. When asked how his speech was received, de la Lama replied, “I got a lot of good response from it. Even though it was a virtual graduation, people reached out and said they liked it. (CHS Math and Physics Teacher) Bill Lemei sent me an Email with his response and how much he connected with it. Even though it was an abnormal graduation, people responded.”
We’ll conclude with the final five paragraphs of de la Lama’s insightful and well-written commencement address. “But victory is also coupled with a lot of effort and, in many cases, sacrifice. And, as the Greeks (a reference to the Greek myth of Sisyphus from earlier in the speech) know, the boulder must always come down. That feeling of victory lasts a relatively short while compared to the amount of time you put in to achieve your goal.
“We already know that the amazing feeling of success is worth it, but the real challenge comes in understanding why the effort and the sacrifice is worth it. Put simply, if you’re calling it sacrifice, it’s not worth it.
“Let’s not spend time and energy thinking only of the goal and not being conscious of the process. Although it may not always be easy, let us try to enjoy the journey as much as the victory because the journey is more than just one moment. The journey is life.
“If we build towards a future of constant self-improvement and growth – one where we will never reach the top of the hill, but the top of many hills – we will be living our lives in service of a change we wish to see in ourselves and in the world. We are not simply accomplishing our goals for the sake of accomplishing them.
“And I will conclude with one last piece of advice. Keep your dreams present in everything you do. Focus on refining your craft every day. Let’s not sacrifice our time and energy in short-lived goals. So, Class of 2020, let’s invest that time and energy in continuing to improve ourselves, our world, and let us make the most of every opportunity we’re given.”