By Emily Polanco-Barahona, 17, Manual Arts HS
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Photo by Manual Arts HS Assistant Principal Anthony Armendariz

During my years at Manual Arts, my inner-city high school near USC, I worked hard and even came close to a mental breakdown to earn the highest GPA in my graduating class. But even though I was valedictorian with a 4.26, the people in charge of graduation wouldn’t let me speak at the ceremony. There went the dream I’d been working toward for four years.

The counselor in charge of graduation, Joni Boykins, told me in May that I would be greeting the parents during the ceremony, but that I would not be giving a valedictorian speech. I was too shocked to ask why. But we were going to have a student speaker, who would speak on a theme chosen by the class. So I decided to try out for that, although none of us knew the theme. It wasn’t until the day of the tryouts that I learned what the theme would be: "Many people walk through our lives, but only few leave footprints in our hearts." My first reaction—Puke! But I didn’t care; I just needed a chance to give a speech.

When I went to try out, Boykins said I couldn’t, because I had not signed up. Wait a sec, there were sign-ups? I was angry, but as soon as I stormed out of the room, tears welled in my eyes.

"It won’t matter later," was the comfort my friends and teachers offered. Well, it mattered now! Didn’t that count for something? No one told me why I couldn’t speak, and even after asking the counselors and the principal, I couldn’t get a straight answer.

It was painful knowing that if given the chance to speak, I would have praised the school that once gave me detention for being early. It was during my vacation and I got caught in a tardy sweep (all late students are picked up and given detention) even though I was 10 minutes early to my voluntary AP class. But in my speech I would have focused on the good experiences. During my four years, I went from a shy girl to a notorious man-hating feminist (even though I don’t really hate men) who loves debating, speaking out and challenging beliefs, all thanks to Manual Arts. I’m even friends with the principal, Dr. Edward Robillard.

I learned to be more assertive and aggressive about things that are important to me, so would it be surprising that I did not stand by when my speech was stolen from me?

So I wrote a speech anyway hoping that if the principal read it, he might be encouraged to help me. After reading it, he censored out phrases like "little ghetto" and "risky environment," which he said were inappropriate, and said he’d consider letting me speak. Success, right? But "no" was the final answer.

I knew what I had to do.

On Friday, June 25, during the last rehearsal before graduation, I was given the role of leading the class in moving the tassels on our graduation caps, in addition to my greeting. This gave me the opening I needed to speak, since I was going to be at the podium anyway.

The next day, the Los Angeles Sports Arena was filled with people wearing purple, the school color. I made it to the stage and stood while the students finished taking their seats. I kept imagining my punishment for speaking, but more importantly, I focused on avoiding a reprimand. I was tense and nervous, but also determined.

Butterflies in my stomach

I told my buddy Miguel Mejia, the Track B valedictorian, about my plan.

"Remember to stand by me ’til I’m done," I told him as we walked up to the stage. I almost backed down.

Miguel read his script then stayed by me as a barrier, while I opened up the little paper I’d been holding in my hand for a few hours. I began my 200-word speech. During the speech, I dropped some papers, but paid no attention to them. I paused while students cheered when I praised teachers and congratulated my classmates. I smiled and kept going. I felt great, I was rebelling and no one knew except for a few people. But that feeling faded as soon as I felt someone come up from behind me and kneel down to pick up the papers I’d dropped.

"Am I going to see the end of this?" Boykins whispered angrily as she put the papers back on the lectern.

I turned, nodded and kept going. She stood inches away until I was done. People cheered and that was the end of it.

Ironically, the first words uttered from Dr. Robillard’s mouth were, "Good speech." He admitted that he was scared because before the ceremony I had given him "a look" of disappointment and anticipation.

I could have conformed to what some teachers and friends had told me, "It won’t matter when you are at Yale. It is not the end of the world." And maybe they were right. But they didn’t understand how much this speech meant to me. It wasn’t "just" high school to me. The stress, homework, finals, self-examination and struggles at home made me stronger.

I harbor no ill feelings against anyone now that it’s over. But I’m still disappointed that I couldn’t express what I really felt in my speech because I knew Dr. Robillard didn’t want me referring to the gangs and drugs in our "ghetto." I was lucky, I survived. I admire all the people who graduated, because even after their innocence and many of their hopes and dreams were crumbled by harsh realities, like dealing with the deaths of friends and threat of gangs, they kept this one.

It doesn’t seem like much. But, without my dreams and the support I received, I would have drowned. My main message in my speech was that we survived this stage in life. Now we’re faced with the next; it’s not time to give up, not now that we’ve come so far. This is where the real fight for survival begins. I am prepared.