Marvin Wright, president of his high school senior class, spent two weeks working on his graduation speech, staying up till 5 on the morning of the event to finish.
But later that day, the principal of Southwest Edgecombe High in Pinetops, N.C., told him he would be giving a different address, a five-sentence paragraph prepared by the school administrators. He gave him no explanation.
“I felt robbed of a chance to say my own words,” Marvin, 18, told The Washington Post. His mother, classmates and teachers urged him to give his speech anyway.
When he stepped onto the stage at the end of the commencement ceremony Friday, he opened up a folder under the podium containing the school’s prepared remarks:
I would like to thank all of our friends and family for being here tonight. I would also like to address my fellow graduates one last time before we leave this gym. Although we may all never be in the same room at the same time again, we will always share the memories that we created within these walls. And no matter what we all do after graduation, never forget that this is one place that we all have in common, this place is home. Congratulations graduates, we did it!
But instead of delivering those words, he took out his cellphone and read a copy of his original speech, with his friends in the audience nodding to him in encouragement.
Sitting behind Marvin, the principal, Craig Harris, immediately turned to another staff member, whispering with a look of disapproval, video footage shows.
After the applause and final procession, all of the students lined up to receive their official diplomas. But one folder in the stack was missing: Marvin’s. His senior adviser informed him the principal had removed the diploma because Marvin had read the wrong speech.
“All my friends were outside with their big yellow folders taking pictures and I was still inside, trying to get my diploma,” Marvin said. “I was really hurt and embarrassed, basically humiliated.”
The teenager and his mother, Jokita Wright, accused the school of not only censoring a student’s words but then retaliating against him by withholding his diploma. The mother complained to the principal, who explained to her that her son had missed a deadline to submit the speech to the school. Marvin says he never knew about it.
Marvin did not receive his diploma for another two days, when the principal dropped it off at his home at the request of the superintendent. The principal handed him the diploma, saying only, “If your mom has any questions just give me a call.” Then he left.
Edgecombe County Schools Superintendent John Farrelly called Marvin on Monday to apologize for the way the school handled the situation on commencement day.
“I have communicated with the family to apologize on behalf of the school,” Farrelly said in a statement to the Wilson Times. “The diploma never should have been taken from the student.”
Farrelly said he did not have any problems with the content of the teenager’s speech but was concerned about Marvin’s use of a cellphone and the decision to change course at the last minute.
“There is an expectation that is communicated to all graduation speakers that the prepared and practiced speech is the speech to be delivered during the ceremony,” Farrelly said. “That was made extremely clear to the speakers. The student did not follow those expectations.”
In the fall, when Marvin was elected senior class president, his adviser informed him he would have to write a graduation speech. He says he wasn’t given any guidance, so he sought out tips from the previous year’s senior class president, and listened to numerous commencement speeches online for ideas.
His English teacher told him she approved of the speech. Marvin even left a copy of the remarks on his principal’s desk for review on commencement day.
Still, administrators insisted he should read the address they prepared.
But Marvin gave the speech he wanted to give, recounting memories he shared with his classmates through elementary, middle and high school. Though he stumbled a few times — distracted by the conversations taking place behind him and struggling to read from his phone — Marvin’s speech was welcomed with cheers and laughs from the audience.
In his approximately five-minute address, he thanked God, the family members of the graduates, the school’s faculty and his mom — who was watching in the bleachers in tears.
“This is it,” Marvin said. “We have finally made it.”
He talked about playing at recess in elementary school, dealing with the “transition period” of middle school, when “things didn’t work out in our favor.”
Finally, he talked about his senior year.
“Everything seemed different,” he said. “Teachers became mentors, friends became family, and Southwest Edgecombe High became home.”
“I am no expert in this journey we call life, but we all have the ability to make a difference and to be that change the world needs,” Wright continued. “The past 13 years have equipped us for a time as this to stand bold in who we are. So I say to my classmates, cherish these last few minutes we spend here and the memories we have created and get ready for the journey ahead.”
Marvin was his mother’s last child to graduate high school. His relatives drove to watch him speak and receive his diploma. While she’s glad he gave an address in his own words, Jokita Wright wished her son could have left the school that day with the diploma he rightfully earned, she said.
“He can’t get that day back,” his mother said. “That was a special moment for me, it was a special moment for him.”
Luckily, Marvin received the diploma just in time for the day he needed it most. On Monday, he officially committed to entering the U.S. Navy, after which he hopes to study pediatric surgery.
The high school graduate will report for duty on Oct. 10.