Barry Saunders

A graduation speech fight. A withheld diploma. And lessons learned for student and principal.

Wouldn’t it be a trip if the greatest lesson Marvin Wright learned throughout his 13 years of public school education came on his absolute last day of school?

Graduation night is when, Wright said, he “learned to do what I feel is right and to stand up for myself.”

The high school principal who withheld Wright’s diploma for 48 hours in retaliation for that lesson learned something, too. SouthWest Edgecombe High School principal Craig Harris learned that holding a kid’s diploma hostage is not a good idea. Harris was suspended with pay late Thursday for that act of intemperance, while the matter is still being investigated.

“It’s embarrassing, it shouldn’t have happened,” Edgecombe County Schools superintendent John Farrelly told me Thursday of the commencement kerfuffle. Marvin Wright was wrong for not getting his speech in on time, Farrelly said, but the actions of administrators were even worse.

“I didn’t know about the withholding of the diploma until about 24 hours later,” he said, “and I immediately instructed the administration to give it to him. I called Marvin and apologized.”

Principal Harris delivered the diploma to Wright at home two days after graduation.

Wright, as senior class president at SouthWest Edgecombe High in Pinetops, was selected to give a graduation speech, but senior adviser Shelton Langley and Harris told him he would have to deliver some generic, light-bread pabulum written for him by administrators instead of the one on which he’d worked for two weeks.

School system officials said later that Wright missed the deadline to turn in for approval the speech he planned to deliver. Wright claims he knew nothing of any deadline. Besides, he said, his English teacher had read and given the green light to the speech.

Wright, on graduation day, walked to the podium, took out the folder with the five-sentence speech – speechette? – that had been written for him, and looked out at the expectant faces of his classmates. “When I got onstage and looked at my classmates, they were nodding their heads and giving me the look, basically the ‘OK,’ to go ahead and do my speech,” he said.

That’s when Wright pulled out his cellphone and read the speech he’d written. It was way more personal and nuanced than the one written for him, and equally inoffensive. There was certainly nothing in it to anger administrators or make them do something like keep his diploma.

While his classmates exulted in their accomplishment and posed for pictures with their sheepskins, Wright was left standing alone, wondering what had just happened. One of the teachers came up and informed him that he’d be receiving no diploma, he said.

Much ado about nothing, you say? A tempest in Pinetops?

Possibly to you, but not to Wright, a student who – according to his mom, Jokita Wright – did everything right during his public school career but was “humiliated” on his last day.

How cool is this kid? He said he will continue working at Foot Locker and at Cookout until he leaves for the Navy in October.

“Marvin,” his mother said, “told me that some of the teachers who heard the speech he wrote told him to deliver” that one. “That was on graduation day, because the graduates had to be there early. He texted me and asked me what should he do. I told him ‘Whatever you choose to do, that’s on you. I support you.’ 

When he delivered the one he had written, she said, “I was a big crybaby. But I was so proud. I loved it.”

I tip my sombrero to Wright for having the courage of his convictions – and for the fact that 20 years from now he won’t have to regret not delivering his own speech.

Help me out here, though, yo: Does anyone who is more than two weeks out of school remember their commencement speaker or the speech by their senior class president?

I wouldn’t know my commencement speaker if he came up and called me a Vienna sausage.

The only thing I remember about the entire evening is a palpable feeling of dread, as I sat in the football stadium throughout the ceremony waiting for Mr. Blackwell or some other assistant principal to yank me up and out.

You see, I’d lost a library book – a biography of Sigmund Freud, because I was trying to decide whether to become a shrink or a fry cook – and principal Herman Williams was death on students who lost books. I had been assured I would neither march nor receive a diploma until it was found.

I found the book 30 years after graduation and returned it last year when I made a speech to hundreds of Richmond County educators.

I doubt they remember a word I said, either.

Barry Saunders: 919-836-2811, @BarrySaunders9