A high school principal cut a valedictorian’s mic when he started discussing his queer identity in his commencement address.
Bryce Dershem, had just begun to recall how he came out as a freshman at his Eastern Regional High School, in New Jersey, when Robert Tull, the principal, unplugged the microphone and removed it from its stand. According to the New York Times, Tull simultaneously took away Dershem’s prepared remarks, gesturing to him to instead continue reading from the previously agreed upon speech, which didn’t include any mention of Dershem’s queerness or struggles with mental health.
Another school official then brought Dershem a new mic—apparently trying to pass off the incident as nothing more than a technical difficulty—but Dershem didn’t read from his administration-approved speech. Instead, cheered on by his classmates, he pressed on with his original remarks, reciting them from memory.
“As I was saying,” he continued:
“We brand high school as four years of self-discovery, but few of us even know where to begin. After I came out as queer freshman year, I felt so alone. I didn’t know who to turn to for support, for guidance, for a hug. Every day at school I outwardly smiled while inwardly questioning how we were supposed to link the different facets of our identities: brother, sister—queen!—queer lover, human being. Even though my family, my friends and so many Eastern faculty believed in me I needed to accept the unapologetic version of myself, for myself. We all do.
...As I struggled with my queer identity, I also began struggling more and more with mental illness, which only worsened with the coronavirus pandemic. Beginning September of senior year, I spent six months in treatment for anorexia. For so long, I tried to bend and break and shrink to society’s expectations.”
Dershem told the Times that the onstage tensions with administration weren’t entirely unanticipated. Though the superintendent of the Eastern Camden County Regional School District said school officials hadn’t asked students to exclude discussion of their personal identity from their speeches, Dershem said Tull had rejected three different drafts of his valedictorian speech, claiming they were not wide-reaching enough. A few days before graduation, Tull allegedly told him that if he didn’t revise the speech, he wouldn’t be able to deliver any remarks as valedictorian.
After changing the speech once more Tull still wasn’t pleased, according to the Times, so Dershem made plans to disregard the principal’s requests altogether. “I felt like I was faced with this choice where I could either honor all the belief systems and virtues that I cultivated, or I could just follow the administration,” Dershem told the outlet.
I continue to be in complete awe of graduating high schoolers who use their time on the commencement stage to make a beautiful personal statement, argue passionately for a social justice cause, or simply pull one over on—in this context—largely powerless school administrators. Two other such instances come to mind: The hundreds of students who, in 2019, commandeered their commencement addresses to call for bold action against climate change; and the Texas valedictorian, a young woman, who used her time to give a speech on her state’s cruel abortion laws. They’re more courageous than most.