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Ellen Alperstein

Ellen Alperstein is an essayist and editor for the Los Angeles Times-Washington Post News Service.

It was the job and the joy of valedictorian Aurora Ponce to speak at the graduation this month (June) of her high school class from the Accelerated School in Los Angeles. As senior class president, volunteer tutor and a student of college-level courses, Ponce was just the sort of achiever you'd think the school authorities who paved her path to adulthood would want to recognize and elevate to the role-model status she deserved.

But when Ponce and other students at the school articulated their concern last month for what they perceived as diminishing academic opportunities by participating in a sit-in, her spot on the graduation program was revoked as punishment. People, apparently, taught her to be independent and excel, but not too much. She's not supposed to challenge authority, she's supposed to submit, achieve and express nothing but gratitude.

I don't know Aurora Ponce, but I know how she feels.

As the scheduled speaker at my high school graduation, I, too, was told at the last minute that I wouldn't be able to deliver my message. Unlike Ponce, I wasn't being punished for a thoughtful act of conscience, I was being denied a platform because certain school officials didn't care for the message I had planned to deliver. My speech wasn't profane, it wasn't defamatory, it just didn't comport with the "It's all good" sentiment with which graduates are supposed to be dismissed from school for the final time. And I was not the sort of student certain school officials had hoped would win the contest for graduation speaker.

At my high school, the keynote speech was not an automatic academic honor; our valedictorian, like anyone else in the class, was welcome to write a speech and present it before a panel of teacher-judges, who would select the person whose message and delivery they deemed the best. That was me.
I was a good student and a high achiever, but, unlike Ponce, I wasn't valedictorian; I wasn't even valedictorian-adjacent. But with longtime success on a statewide level in competitive speaking and debate, and with more moxie than brains, I was comfortable speaking before large groups, and believed I had an important message.

The day before the ceremony, I was pulled aside at rehearsal, and was told by an administrator I would not be allowed to participate in rehearsal nor give the speech the next evening unless I rewrote it. Too many people, I was told, objected to my comparison of high school with basic training, objected to my exhortation to use what was a strong, well-meaning, but narrow foundation to launch lives of greater reach and creativity. I was supposed to kiss ass, but I had kicked it.

After a torturous 24 hours involving parental intervention on a county school board level, I was allowed to give the speech. Only after the ceremony in the school's cavernous gym before 535 graduates and their families did I learn that the sound mysteriously had malfunctioned right before I took the microphone, only to be less mysteriously restored upon my conclusion. No one beyond the first three rows had heard a word I said.

I know how Aurora Ponce feels.

She feels as if the people who taught her to think, the people who taught her to act with the fuel of intellect and passion, abandoned her when she stepped up to put theory into practice. She feels as though the minds that taught hers are smaller than the one they helped to create. She feels cheated and angry.

I hope she also appreciates the irony of the final lesson of her high school career: Sometimes people who help you learn to think well are threatened when you do it. And that says a lot more about them than you.

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