There is nothing about Haley Billings that is ordinary. I’ve spoken with class valedictorians before and the one thing most of them had in common was a hard wiring for competitiveness. Not so with Haley, and she freely admits as much.
What Haley is, however, is smart and dedicated. She wound up a tight academic race by finishing at the top of her class with a weighted 4.6 GPA and earned the honor of being named the Melissa High School Class of 2013 valedictorian. What makes this story so unique is that the salutatorian and the No. 3-ranked student in MHS’ graduating class are Haley’s two best friends. Haley, Caroline Whitten (salutatorian) and Jackie Henger (no. 3 in her class) are a tight-knit group. They hung around outside of school together, they confided in one another, they talked about class and life in general and they even studied together. What they didn’t do, however, was battle over that top spot.
"It was never really a competition between us; none of us are really competitive anyway," said Haley. "But we were all extremely close, and we were all always in the same classes and worked on projects together."
"With the three girls being friends, that made it hard for them because they didn’t want it to be a contest with one another," said Christy Billings of her daughter. "So, wherever it fell was fine. We wanted her to fall wherever she should, but we know it was tenths-of-points between at least she and Caroline. I think that was hard for [Haley] at times."
"It was kind of weird having my two closest friends being my competition," admitted Haley. "I’ve never really been competitive necessarily, so I didn’t have that drive. Some people, if it’s their friends, they want to do even better. It was hard to see it as a competition. In the end, you’re more competing with yourself than each other."
The fact that three high school seniors who are within fractions of academic points can maintain solid friendships through it all speaks volumes about them and their upbringing. Haley stressed that the girls never let the question of who would get that top spot interfere with what they meant to each other.
"It would have definitely been noticeable if it had been competition because we had a million chances to sabotage each other," said Haley. "We were friends before competitors, so we would always study together and work on projects together.
"It was definitely an interesting experience, but they are still my two closest friends and they were genuinely happy for me."
Being named valedictorian comes with certain perks, but making a speech to hundreds of people with all eyes on you generally does not qualify as one of said benefits. Count Haley as one of those who do not cherish their time at the podium.
"At the beginning of my senior year, I realized that I was so close (to becoming valedictorian) so, of course, I was going to try to make it. The only reason that I would want to stay [No. 3] is that I wouldn’t have to make a speech. The hardest part for me is knowing what to say," she admitted.
Her speech, was, of course a success [read Haley’s speech in its entirety at the end of this feature story.] But success is nothing new to Haley, who has spent her entire 12 years in the Melissa ISD school system. Christy related that she, husband Brian and sons Brett and Blake moved to Melissa just one week before Haley made her entrance into the world. Since then, Haley has exhibited the kind of focus and drive one would expect of a valedictorian.
"When she puts her mind to something she really gets into it and finishes the task," said Christy. "She’s always been a good student; she’s just never been a quitter, that’s not Haley. We are very proud."
Haley admits she likes a challenge, especially one of an academic nature.
"I was always pushing myself to the harder courses," she said. "There were courses that I did struggle with. But I was always raised to do [my] homework and do the best [I] can. So, when high school got here it wasn’t like ‘Whoa, this is really hard,’ it was kind of like I just needed to spend more time on it. There were courses that were difficult, but I was prepared for [that.] I’ve always tried to be a good student. Even in grade school, grades have always been important to me."
Haley was looking at Texas State University until she visited her brother Blake, a junior, at Oklahoma State University. It was on that visit that she checked out the campus and its departments and liked what she saw. The faculty and research departments appealed to the Melissa product, and she made her decision to become a Cowboy. Haley’s plan is to become a registered dietician.
"It’s a newer field," explained Haley. "I noticed that when I was looking at different colleges a lot of them don’t offer it."
Focusing on nutrition and diet comes naturally to Haley, a runner who trains for half-marathons and does yoga in her spare time away from the books. Part of what influenced Haley to choose this career path may have come from a mission trip to Haiti she undertook with her mom during spring break of her junior year.
"There’s not enough food, and the rate of malnutrition is really high," said Haley. "When we were there we actually saw some kids…we saw kids that were starving, and the different symptoms of [malnutrition]; that was definitely an eye-opener for me."
In addition to her normal studies, Haley will be in the Freshman Research Scholars program which teaches research method and pairs students up with faculty on an actual research project for presentation. According to mom Christy, only 60 students out of 4,500 OSU freshman were chosen for this program. Haley was also selected for the Presidential Leadership Council, another select group.
For MHS’ valedictorian, college means a new beginning, so she is cherishing the time she has this summer.
"I like to keep a lot of time now for spending with my friends and family since I’m about to leave and we’re all kind of going separate ways," said Haley.
Looking back at her own path to the top, Haley was asked to impart some of what she has learned on to those aspiring to reach the top of their class.
"It’s really hard senior year to keep your focus on your schoolwork. If you’re trying to move up then you’re taking as hard courses as you can and that consumes a lot of extra time. You do give up some things and miss out on some things, but at the same time you just have to remember that you’re going to school to get your education, and if you [finish] first in your class you will get benefits [from] that," said Haley. "You will have that title for the rest of your life.