A high school valedictorian by the name of Bryce Dershem went viral last week after a video of him giving a speech at his graduation from Eastern Regional High School in Vorhees Township, New Jersey, went viral.
In the video, seconds into the speech, the microphone mysteriously cut out.
Except it’s not all that mysterious. It turns out that, just shortly after Dershem began to talk about his experience as a queer kid and coming out in his freshman year of high school, the school’s principal, Robert M. Tull, unplugged cords to the microphone to stop him from speaking.
He then took the microphone from the stand and took away Dershem’s written speech, trying to force the teen, only 18, into giving a much different speech that apparently didn’t include any references to his sexual identity or his experiences with mental health and anorexia.
Luckily, for Dershem, and for the world, and for his dad, who was recording the speech and got the whole ordeal on camera to post on YouTube, Dershem had basically memorized the speech. And the crowd — his fellow students — cheered for him to keep going. The speech, and its bravery, echoes Paxton Smith’s viral speech in Dallas, Texas earlier this summer when she spoke out extemporaneously against the six-week abortion ban law in Texas.
His principal gave him another microphone, most likely in the expectation that he would go on to read an approved speech, not the one he decided to read instead.
But he persisted in what he wanted to say. In the speech, in which you can see Dershem wearing a rainbow flag over his graduation gown, Dershem touches on his experiences with mental health and anorexia and with being an openly queer teenager.
“As I was saying, we brand high school as four years of self-discovery. But, few of us even know where to begin. After I came out as queer freshman year, I felt so alone. I didn’t know who to turn to for support, for guidance, for a hug. Every day at school, I outwardly smiled while inwardly questioning how we are supposed to link the inner facets of our identities. Brother, sister, queen,” he continued, riffing entirely off of his memory, now.
Dershem pointed to his own struggles in the speech, as well, pointing to the fact that he had to spend time in treatment for anorexia. “For so long, I tried to bend and break and shrink to society’s expectations. There are times when it’s hard to know if we’ll make it down the road at all. As you walk beyond the halls… I would like to share what I believe is the most important thing I’ve learned… you are not alone in your fight. With the belief of those around you, you never have to suffer in silence,” he said.
According to The New York Times, Dershem and the principal, Mr. Tull, had gone through multiple revisions of the graduation speech. Tull said that either Dershem gave a revised version of the speech or that he’d be unable to speak at all — and subsequent revisions weren’t liked by Tull. In any case, per the publication, Dershem decided with his family that he would give the speech he always wanted. And luckily, he had it memorized.
As for Dershem’s dad, who posted the video, he said, “I probably watched the speech I don’t know how many times since then. I’m a pretty tough guy, but, you know, I break down every time I watch it.”