I don’t think Bryce Dershem intended his valedictorian speech at Eastern Regional High School in Camden County, New Jersey, to fire up our national debate on things like cancel culture and snowflake culture.
But 11 days later, the six-minute speech has long since gone viral and for the most predictable of reasons. Eastern Regional Principal Robert Tull tried to stop it.
In an age when everyone with a phone is a videographer, trying to shut down a speech doesn’t mute that speech. It puts that speech on speaker.
About one minute after Dershem began, Tull killed the PA system, then stepped to the podium and removed both the microphone and Dershem’s written speech.
At least some of the students and parents in attendance applauded Dershem at that point. Someone then appeared with a new microphone and PA system connection, and Dershem resumed, giving his speech from memory.
So what did he say that was such a threat to Eastern Regional?
Which, to Principal Tull, wasn’t the point. The point was that Dershem was giving his own speech, not the speech the school had approved.
Dershem said he wanted to focus on the importance of self-belief, support systems and mental health awareness in the school system.
That’s admirable, just not very controversial or newsworthy. As a general topic, it would have presumably joined every other high school graduation speech ever given, which is to say it would have been forgotten by the time the caps flew into the air.
Where Dershem apparently annoyed the school authorities was by illustrating his point with his own story. He came out as gay in his freshman year, and while he had the support of his family and others, he felt isolated. He later struggled with anorexia, and he described spending a fair amount of high school wrestling with big troubling questions like who we really are in this complex world. Along the way, he said, he could have used some help.
He clearly survived, having become valedictorian and all, and his closing message was upbeat. We all struggle with something, he told his 500 or so classmates, which elevates graduating from a ritual to a cause for celebration.
That’s true. It’s also true that every graduating class back to Ancient Greece has congratulated itself on overcoming some big thing.
That’s how the teenage years have always looked, to everyone, and while social media adds a new dimension by reminding kids what they don’t have and providing a cheap platform for bullies, the truth is that young folks have always been competitive and miserable to other young folks. Yes, a few teenagers ace high school. Most of us felt like parts of it were like walking through a combat zone, where surviving brought little triumph, only relief.
Bryce Dershem’s valedictorian speech experience, though, quickly became less about teenage drama than other things, like whether Principal Tull didn’t want him to talk honestly about his experiences as a gay student.
Dershem, Tull and school officials had discussed his speech beforehand. Dershem said he was given a speech without the personal gay references and told that if he didn’t deliver that one, he couldn’t speak at all.
School officials now say he was never told he couldn’t bring up his identity, though without further details that leaves a pretty big grey area.
In any case, it was courageous for Dershem to deliver his own speech in that situation, and to his credit, he has tried to keep the post-speech discussion focused on his original points. It quickly leapt, however, into a debate about “cancel culture,” which troubles people across the ideological spectrum. While the phrase has already graduated into serious overuse and misuse, it does identify instances where historical perspective gets lost and common sense gets ignored.
In the specific case of Dershem’s speech, the other question that needs to be asked may seem awkward: Do schools have the right, or the obligation, to pre-approve public remarks?
The Supreme Court ruled recently that schools cannot discipline students for offensive things they say, or post, outside the school.
A graduation ceremony is a sanctioned academic event. What if the valedictorian weren’t Bryce Dershem, but a white nationalist who argued that minorities should be eliminated because they’re agents of “white replacement”? Would the school then have some moral or even legal liability under hate speech or bullying strictures?
The Voorhees School District has asked for a federal Civil Rights review of Tull’s action, with the goal of establishing its right to prevent a student speaker at a public event from going verbally rogue.
Meanwhile, the discussion sparked by Dershem’s speech also doubtless has a quieter and equally pervasive subtext: the extent to which Dershem’s detailed account of his own experiences reflects snowflake culture.
The snowflake culture premise is that for the last two or three generations, the world looks like this: They are the center of the universe. What happens to them matters more than what happens to anyone else. Nothing is ever their fault. They are always victims. Every problem stems from the world or the system. They do not make mistakes. Everyone gets a trophy.
In reality, those who lament snowflake culture say, we all screw up and it’s often our own fault. The solution is to learn from the screwups, which means admitting them.
To underscore the obvious, this is not to say Bryce Dershem screwed up by being gay. That’s who he is, and the real triumph will be the day when it’s not a news story any more. His generation, whatever its flaws, is moving in that direction.
It would also be great if the big takeaway from the Eastern Regional High School valedictorian address was that high school is more bearable when you have peer and institutional support and people are kinder to each other.
But if it were, Bryce Dershem would not be getting a “good job” note from New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy or a segment on Good Morning America. And Principal Tull could answer his phone.