New high school trend: Viral gradu-shaming speeches

by | Jun 16, 2019 | Detroit Free Press, Comment | 0 comments

Most folks over 35 will agree, high school today isn’t the way they remember it.

Here’s an example: two weeks ago, in what’s becoming a national trend, a California valedictorian named Nataly Buhr used parts of her speech to trash her school.

“To my counselor, thank you for letting me fend for myself — you were always unavailable,” Buhr said, sarcastically.

To the administration: “Your negligence to inform me of several scholarships until the day before they were due potentially caused me to miss out on thousands of dollars.”

Buhr even accused a teacher of showing up drunk. “To the teacher that was regularly intoxicated during class this year, thank you for using yourself to teach these students about the dangers of alcoholism.”

(That one, by the way, brought gasps and then cheers from her fellow students, proving one thing hasn’t changed: the minute you mention anything about booze, high school kids think it’s awesome.)

Every year, it seems, you hear more examples of students using graduation ceremonies to air their grievances. Earlier this month, two salutatorians at Universal Academy in Southwest Detroit used their speeches to accuse the school of breaking promises, dismissing certain teachers, and even committing “dozens of unlawful acts.”

“Like a machine,” one of them said on stage, “(the school) runs on excuses and lies.”

Eventually, the microphone was turned off.

This, folks, is called gradu-shaming

Now, I don’t know about you. But if I had stood up at my high school graduation and begun to trash the teachers and administration, it wouldn’t have been the microphone that silenced me. It would have been my mother on one side and my father on the other, pulling me off the stage by my ears.

It’s not about these complaints being valid. Perhaps they are. Perhaps Buhr’s guidance counselors weren’t the greatest. Perhaps Universal Academy has issues with who it hires and fires. Who knows?

But the time and place to air those complaints is pretty much every other time and place EXCEPT the graduation stage! Was anyone stopping these kids and their parents from going to the school board, the administration, parent-teacher meetings or elsewhere to air these grievances?

Ah, but only doing that would deny the most lucrative part of the new Gradu-shaming Speech: the viral video.

Of course, Buhr’s comments zoomed across the world. Of course, she was written about in countless news and internet commentary outlets. Same happened with the pair from Universal Academy: videos, TV interviews, spotlight.

Ripping your school at graduation is a quick ticket to viral celebrity. When a Pennsylvania valedictorian had his microphone cut two years ago, after admittedly going off script and criticizing his school, Jimmy Kimmel invited him on his ABC talk show to finish it.

The studio audience roared with approval. Afterwards, Kimmel told the student, “Keep being a pain in the ass.”

And the young man said, “I will.”

Hey. Why wouldn’t other kids follow suit?

What if teachers fired back?

The problem is, while TV shows and the internet celebrate these trash-your-school speeches as righteous activities, no one mentions another thing getting trashed: honesty. Most of these students submit speeches ahead of time, only to go off script at the actual moment. That’s called lying. What lesson are we teaching them with applause? Try that in the real world, and see how long you hold your job.

There’s also the one-sidedness of the moment, because these kids — and the parents who encourage them — know the school won’t make a counter speech.

Can you imagine if they did? Can you imagine what a teacher or administrator might say if “airing your honest grievances” was accepted tradition?

“To all you students who slept through my classes, thanks a lot,” they might begin. “To all who were too busy to break away from your iPhones to get the education we offered, good luck in your future.

“To all the parents who screamed and threatened us, who told us it was our job to teach their kids how to act, who refused to show up for parent-teacher meetings, we really appreciate your help.

“Oh, and by the way, to all of you who just walk out the door without as much as a thank you to the teachers who work long hours, often get low pay, and at times have to purchase their own supplies due to budget cuts: you’re welcome.”

Hey. They’re just being honest.

This is entitlement

But no, the teachers and administrators don’t say that. Because one important lesson of life is the where and when of things. A graduation ceremony meant for all is not a whine-and-moan session meant for one. The indulgent, it’s-important-to-me-so-it-has-to-be-important-to-you entitlement is typical of how we are raising our kids today.

And if you want to know how it got that way, listen to the parents.

“I was proud that she spoke up and she got it out,” Buhr’s mother said.

But of course.

By the way, all of these kids ripping their alma maters did quite well in classes, and are going to good colleges. So apparently, their schools did something right. Or did these amazing, independent-minded YouTube heroes actually educate themselves?

They seem to think so. Buhr, in denouncing her counselor for being happy at her selection as valedictorian, said “you had absolutely no role in my achievements.”

With comments like those, is it any surprise some schools have dropped valedictorians altogether? Recently a highly  ranked Ohio high school said the tradition had gotten too competitive. A Fox News report said the school was eliminating valedictorian and salutatorian honors to “permit students to focus on other things.”

Like … manners?

Contact Mitch Albom: Check out the latest updates with his charities, books and events at Download “The Sports Reporters” podcast each Monday and Thursday on-demand through Apple Podcasts, Google Play, Spotify and more. Follow him on Twitter @mitchalbom.


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Mitch Albom writes about running an orphanage in impoverished Port-au-Prince, Haiti, his kids, their hardships, laughs and challenges, and the life lessons he’s learned there every day.

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