The 2018 high school graduation season featured many of the reliable and enduring traditions we expect to see and hear each year: yearbook signings, decorating of caps, counting honor cords, and reminiscences from teachers, staff, parents, and students. This year, however, also saw more students using their graduation speeches to speak their minds instead of platitudes.
Considering the prominent role young people played in social justice and anti-violence campaigns across the nation in 2018, this was no surprise. From the #MeToo movement to gun violence, students have been in the trenches, doing a lot of the hard work to create national change.
While national media focused on celebrity stories, high school students made waves in the #MeToo movement, creating sexual education programs at their schools that emphasized consent, sharing stories on social media, and organizing documentary screenings to educate classmates about sexual violence.
Student activists helped organize a National School Walkout on March 17 to honor the lives lost at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School and the March for Our Lives protests to demand action on preventing gun violence,
Earlier this month, two of these student leaders, David Hogg and Emma Gonzales, graduated from Stoneman Douglas. At the graduation ceremony, the community mourned the loss of their classmates and the lack of progress by politicians to address gun violence. Many of the graduation caps were decorated with pointed political statements.
“The class of 2018 has demonstrated time and time again that we may be a new generation, but we are not too young to speak up, to dream, and to create change.” – Lulabel Seitz, valedictorian at Petaluma High School
Senior class president Julia Cordover used her speech to encourage the audience to vote, and Sabrina Fernandez, student government president, delivered a challenge to her classmates.
“Let’s be the generation that sees a problem and fixes it,” she said. “Our country is rooting for us … our country is depending on us.”
Lulabel Seitz, valedictorian at Petaluma High School in northern California, started to deliver the tried-and-true, classic graduation speech she had submitted to the school, but strayed from her script four minutes in.
“The class of 2018 has demonstrated time and time again,” she told the graduating class, “that we may be a new generation, but we are not too young to speak up, to dream, and to create change, which is why, even when some people on this campus, those same people –”
The school then turned off Seitz’s microphone, but Seitz continued her speech:
“… in which some people defend perpetrators of sexual assault and silence their victims.” Seitz was referring to the school, who in her opinion did not take action when she reported her sexual assault.
While people in the audience yelled, “Let her speak!” the school never turned her microphone back on.
Seitz released her full uncensored speech on Youtube, which has more than 400,000 views. “The school continually censors students. It wasn’t an easy thing to do to go up there and say what I said or tried to say,” she told KPIX-TV.
The school’s principal defended the decision to cut her microphone, telling the San Francisco Chronicle, “We were trying to make sure our graduation ceremony was appropriate and beautiful.”
Seitz was not the only student to be censored from delivering a “controversial” message. Cait Christenson, valedictorian at Tomahawk High School in Wisconsin, planned to give a speech discouraging slurs, negative stereotypes, and disrespect toward others. Her speech mentioned “hot button” issues such as discrimination, school shootings, and gender inequality.
Christenson was obviously not the first student to speak out about gun violence, but school officials decided that the issue was too divisive for a graduation speech and that her speech would have to be edited before she could take the stage.
Rather than agreeing to these rules, she withdrew from her speaking role. In an interview with the Wassau Daily Herald, Christenson explained her decision:
“I felt like if I were to rewrite my speech, the message would be washed out. If I could not talk about those three things specifically, change against social injustice would be less likely in the future. The reasons I was not allowed to speak opposed exactly what I was trying to get across in my speech: being able to open a conversation civilly, and critically think about and accept others’ opinions and values.”
Christenson’s speech was published in the Tomahawk Leader weekly newspaper, the Wassau Daily Herald, and many other outlets. On June 20, the school principal apologized for censoring her speech.
More valedictorians broke tradition to ensure every single person could understand them. In Nebraska, Hannah Leeper and Mandy Montante Gonzalez of Fremont High School delivered their speech in English and Spanish, despite facing potential backlash in in their hometown. In 2010, Fremont garnered national attention when voters approved a local ordinance prohibiting hiring and renting to undocumented residents.
Representing a school with a large hispanic population, the two teens said they wanted to make the graduation enjoyable for all family members.
“I think it was a good step forward for the community,” Leeper told the Omaha World-Herald.
While some may argue that graduation speeches are not the appropriate venue for expressing opinions on sensitive topics, the students respond that their intent is not to divide, but to inspire. By taking a stand, Leeper and Gonzales, along with their counterparts across the country, found a way to deliver an important message, in the process perhaps redefining how a graduation ceremony can celebrate students and how a graduation speech can inspire them.
As Julia Cordover said at the Stoneman Douglas High School graduation, “Our struggle is part of our story. It doesn’t define us. Let it motivate us.”
Many school districts enforce a strict dress code that prevent students from wearing anything other than school colors and graduation symbols that the districts provide. Across the country, however, Native American students are standing up for cultural pride and heritage at high school graduation ceremonies.
‘It’s Time To Take Action’: Students Lead Protest to Change Gun Laws
There’s a new face on the age-old gun debate: our students – and they are putting lawmakers on notice: They will not stand by and allow elected officials to fail them any longer. “We are going to be the last mass shooting,” Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School student Emma Gonzalez said. “We are going to change the laws.”