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O'Neill: Salutatorian's shortened speech a teachable moment


Published:   |   Updated: June 26, 2013 at 01:20 PM

Call it a teachable moment. Yet again.

Once more a high school graduation-day speech made headlines for what the student-speaker didn't say. The most recent Exhibit A: Wharton High School, where salutatorian Harold Shaw Jr.'s microphone was abruptly silenced in midspeech by Principal Brad Woods.

Whatever the circumstances - and this one included the uncomplimentary Wharton bathroom video that Woods posted online last month - nobody looked good. A 17-year-old with a 7.31 GPA lost his place in his speech, was summarily and suspiciously cut off by Woods and looked befuddled. He'll never get that moment back.

But nobody looked worse than the adult in charge, the pre-emptive principal. It spoke volumes about responsible leadership, common sense, freedom of speech and, well, class. That Superintendent MaryEllen Elia was present and defended Woods' enforcement of "rules" underscored a mindset that was less mature than Shaw's. Some things the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation just can't help her with.

Some necessary context.

Commencement is about students. It's their day. A salutatorian address and a valedictorian farewell are time-honored traditions. Achievement is necessarily on display. But it's really about personalized reflections, shared experiences and verbalized aspirations. These culminating rites of passage are ceremonial constants, even as society continues to swerve culturally, technologically and politically.

But what we can't ignore is the reality that, however accomplished, these student standouts are still pre-adults. Sure, they have been presented with a showcase forum because of their outsized GPAs, campus involvement, work ethic and overall envelope-pushing. And they are certifiably smart. But they are not yet wise.

The last responsibility of their educators is to help them make the transition, without creating a pedagogical day of infamy unworthy of all. It's no time for an administrative amateur hour.

Here's what I suggest.

If you're a principal, acknowledge the obvious. Some of these kids are not as mature as they appear. Some, to be sure, will follow any direction from an authority figure. Some are ready for the Toastmaster's circuit. Some are budding social satirists. Some are Eddie Snowden wannabes. And some just might fancy themselves the next Sarah Palin or Joe ("You lie!") Wilson. They're at that age; they're living in these impressionable times; and they have this stage.

They're also just minutes from being out of high school forever. How tempting to go off script.

With that in mind, I'd do this.

I'd certainly have what some call The Talk, a rules-of-the road counseling session. The best and the brightest don't get a pass on propriety and principle. It would go something like this:

"Commencement isn't a reality TV show. Nor is it a pulpit for proselytizing. Don't abuse your forum but do respect the moment and your audience. Consider this a 'look at us' moment - not 'look at me.' No, we don't want a mini-treatise on your climate change take, but feel free to reference it. It's part of a world you and your contemporaries will be stewards of. It matters.

"Remember, also, that you're not speaking in a commencement vacuum, your words can have a ripple effect and impact people for the better. Take advantage of that. Encourage, exhort and thank. There are no mulligans. Go for it.

"One other thing. You're in this spotlight because of your accomplishments. This is the crowning achievement of all that work - in the classroom, around campus, in the community - that makes you who you are. The person who has made so many people so proud. I'm among them.

"And you know what? Those bathrooms really were gross."

Both the salutatorian and the valedictorian would, of course, submit drafts as they now do. There would be follow-up. As much as practicable. It would be vetted - and then it would be videotaped. Yes, videotaped.

Nobody's going off script on video. And presentations would be preceded by appropriate, live homages to the valedictorian and salutatorian. Then their speeches would be shown via large screens, not unlike what's done at concerts, conventions and even banquets - where they are now a routine way of communicating to audiences. That they are pre-recorded will be seen as a concession to common sense, not some bad-faith act of censorship.

There's a lot to like about those plans for converting the historic Fort Homer Hesterly Armory building on North Howard Avenue into the Tampa Jewish Community Center. Most notable is the expected catalytic impact on other West Tampa properties.

But another synergistic detail is worth noting: The JCC is including a theater for film and stage productions. There's long been a chronic need for such in order to help Tampa address its unrealized, film-industry potential. You can bet that such a facility, while hardly a panacea for Tampa's film-industry infrastructure deficit, will not go unnoticed or unappreciated by whomever the county finally hires as film commissioner.

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