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: Â I got to give one of the short but main speeches before my class and an audience of friends and family. Â 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 simplyâ€¦differentâ€¦from what was expected. Â Twelve years of pablum about “be yourself” meant to be the self those in charge wanted me to be. Â 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. Â I was quietÂ 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. Â I was already known throughout the southwestern quarter of Georgia for being a writer, and whereas I was reticentÂ 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. Â I turned in my draft and was immediately told I’d have to rewrite it into “something more familiar.” Â I said no. Â Wow, did that cause concern! Â Want something unfamiliar? Â It was me saying no, me standing my ground on something that was important to me. Â 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. Â 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. Â 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. Â I refused to be what I considered ordinary. Â There was just no good reason to tell me no. Â Not even a damn or a hell in my speech to use to stop me. Â I even had a reference to God guiding us on the path forward, for Pete’s sake. Â It didn’t need to be controversial in the way that some graduation speeches are deemed controversial now. Â 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? Â 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. Â 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.” Â I spoke of having to leave childhood behind as we walked toward uncertainty and hope. Â 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. Â I noted the teachers and administrators frowning through the first part, then softening. Â By the end of it, I noted many in the audience dabbing at their eyes. Â They got it. Â I’d been understood. Â 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. Â They have to reflect me, have to be different, have to be a true expression of who I am. Â 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. Â I wish I’d been braver throughout high school and relished being different then. Â I do my best now to make up for that.