The Graduation Speech I Almost Wasn’t Allowed to Make in 1980
When I graduated second in my high school class, all that hard work came with a particular privilege: I got to give one of the short but main speeches before my class and an audience of friends and family. Giving the speech I wanted to give turned out to be one of my first big fights as a newly minted adult, not because it was profane or political or controversial, but because it was very simply…different…from what was expected. Twelve years of pablum about “be yourself” meant to be the self those in charge wanted me to be. In this case, even a substantial portion of my class didn’t want me to give the speech when they first heard it.
As salutatorian, I was to give the speech about the Present rather than Past or Future. I was quiet and socially awkward at that age–some things never change–and while I secretly felt that most of the other speeches being written for that year and written by grads in the previous years were, um, bland, I decided to use this rare opportunity of being given a microphone and a podium to express my own particular brand of creativity and my most profound thoughts on being in the present moment as I prepared to step into a future that would be quite different than my teen years. I was already known throughout the southwestern quarter of Georgia for being a writer, and whereas I was reticent of spoken word, I flung my written word far and wide in those pre-Internet days when I wrote weekly columns in four or more Georgia newspapers.
So why wouldn’t I write a graduation speech that mirrored me in some way instead of one that sounded like every other graduation speech?
It didn’t take me long to write it. I turned in my draft and was immediately told I’d have to rewrite it into “something more familiar.” I said no. Wow, did that cause concern! Want something unfamiliar? It was me saying no, me standing my ground on something that was important to me. Standing up for others was a piece of cake, but by God, I’d worked hard for my GPA and right to give my speech. It wasn’t like I was outing an affair between teacher and student or suggesting the whole class get drunk and laid as soon as our parents cleared the building. No, it was simply a rather dramatic way of looking at this point in our lives, and in my life.
My teachers and the school administration relented reluctantly, I think because I’d said I would give the speech I wanted or I wouldn’t speak, and they didn’t quite know how to handle me saying no to a faculty member after so many years of being teacher’s pet. I refused to be what I considered ordinary. There was just no good reason to tell me no. Not even a damn or a hell in my speech to use to stop me. I even had a reference to God guiding us on the path forward, for Pete’s sake. It didn’t need to be controversial in the way that some graduation speeches are deemed controversial now. It was controversial because it wasn’t the same as every other speech in the history of the school. Then, as now, I didn’t fit in with the “But we’ve always done it this way” crowd.
What was so upsetting about my speech? It was the story of seeing the “vision” of a playful child in the days leading up to graduation, how that child seemed to disappear on graduation night, and then reappear clearly enough so that I could finally tell that the child was me. I talked about being at that place between childhood and stepping into a future of dreams and making things happen, of separating myself from that child to “blaze trails into the future.” I spoke of having to leave childhood behind as we walked toward uncertainty and hope. The speech itself was my first attempt to blaze a trail as I stepped into post-graduation land.
On graduation night, I gave the short speech exactly as I’d written it. I noted the teachers and administrators frowning through the first part, then softening. By the end of it, I noted many in the audience dabbing at their eyes. They got it. I’d been understood. Even a couple of classmates pulled me aside afterward and told me that they were surprised, but my speech had “worked.”
To this day, I have to put my own spin on my briefings or I’m not interested in giving them. They have to reflect me, have to be different, have to be a true expression of who I am. That all started with fighting to give a speech at 18 that some people still remember to this day.
Looking back, I see that taking a stand was a brave thing to do. I wish I’d been braver throughout high school and relished being different then. I do my best now to make up for that.