“After I came out as queer freshman year, I felt so alone. I didn’t know who to turn to,” he said, before his microphone suddenly cut out.
Eastern Regional High School’s principal walked up to the lectern to grab the microphone, grabbing a paper copy of Dershem’s speech and directing him to read a new one that had been rewritten without any mention of the teenager’s queer identity or mental health struggles, Dershem told The Washington Post. When the principal pointed Dershem to the new speech at the lectern, he “said I was to read that and nothing else,” the teen told The Washington Post.
“I don’t know why just a reference to who I was warranted being cut off,” Dershem said. “I was on the verge of tears; I didn’t know what to do.”
He decided on the spot to finish his speech from memory.
Dershem told his classmates about how the pandemic, which forced him to take remote classes until May, had exacerbated his own mental health struggles. During senior year, Dershem said he spent six months getting treatment for anorexia and suicidal thoughts. The teen said he hoped sharing his story would inspire his classmates to believe in their ability to achieve, despite the challenge of working through a remote school year during a pandemic that has killed more than 600,000 Americans.
“Part of our identity, our year, our struggle is 2021,” Dershem told his classmates from the stage. “We’re still here though. We adapted to something we never thought possible.”
He said he wanted to share a message of positivity, hope and inclusion, “letting every single person in that audience know that they are enough and that their identities don’t deserve to be marginalized or criminalized or oppressed.”
Dershem said he believes school administrators intentionally cut his microphone to try to force him to give the speech they had written for him. He said those efforts began in the week leading up to graduation when the principal asked Dershem to rewrite the speech multiple times.
“They start saying things like, ‘This speech is not my therapy session,’ ” Dershem said.
He said the administrators ordered him to work with the head of the school’s English department to rewrite the speech, which he did. Even after those edits, he said, the administration was not satisfied. But Dershem decided to give his own speech anyway.
“I thought, ‘I have worked this hard and I deserve to be able to tell my story and give this message of inclusivity,' because I didn’t think there was anything wrong with it,” he said.
Robert Cloutier, the superintendent of Eastern Camden County Regional School District, told NBC Philadelphia that administrators always work with students to edit their graduation speeches.
“Every year, all student speakers are assisted in shaping the speech, and all student speeches — which are agreed upon and approved in advance — are kept in the binder on the lectern for the principal to conduct the graduation ceremony,” Cloutier told the station.
He also denied that Dershem had been asked to remove references to his queer identity before the ceremony.
“No student was asked to remove their personal identity from any speech before or during graduation,” Cloutier told NBC News.
Despite the dispute with the school’s administrators, Dershem’s classmates and friends have only offered support for his decision to give his own version of the graduation speech, he said.
After his speech, Dershem said he was approached by a teacher at his school who lost her son to suicide during the pandemic.
“She hugged me and she said that her son had passed away due to suicide over quarantine and my speech had just meant so much to her, and she really wished he had gotten to hear it, too,” he said. “I thought, ‘This is the one person — this is the one person that I made feel less alone in that audience.’ That was everything for me.”