Marvin Wright, senior class president at Southwest Edgecombe High School, addresses students at commencement on Friday. Photo taken Friday, June 9, 2017 Photo courtesy of Curmilus Butch Dancy II
By Drew C. Wilson
Times Staff Writer
PINETOPS — The superintendent of Edgecombe County Schools has apologized to a SouthWest Edgecombe High School student who received his diploma two days late in apparent retaliation for delivering a commencement speech in his own words.
Marvin Wright, senior class president at SouthWest, was told he had to deliver a four-sentence speech prepared by school officials in lieu of a speech he had spent more than two weeks preparing for graduation ceremonies Friday.
In an act of defiance encouraged by other students, Wright decided at the virtual last second to deliver his own words.
As a result, Wright said, he was not permitted to collect his diploma on graduation day with other students.
“I have communicated with the family to apologize on behalf of the school,” said Superintendent John Farrelly. “The diploma never should have been taken from the student.”
Wright said Monday evening that he had received a voicemail message from Farrelly admitting the diploma should not have been withheld.
“I appreciate it, but it would have meant more if the senior adviser and the principal had called me because they were the ones that caused it,” Wright said.
At a graduation practice, Wright was told he would not be able to deliver his own speech, but instead, would have to read a short statement prepared by the school.
“To be honest, the speech that they wrote wasn’t me at all,” Wright said. “I feel like they tried to belittle me in a way because I had more to say. I feel like they couldn’t describe the ways that I felt and the things that I experienced. There were only four sentences and I was like, ‘I really worked hard on this speech and as senior class president, I think I should read my own speech,’ and they was like, ‘No, this is what you are going to read.’”
Minutes before the graduation, other students told Wright that he should read his own words.
Prior to the event, Wright had printed out a hard copy of his speech.
According to Wright, school officials were to place that speech in a folder to be left on the podium where all of the day’s speeches were to be delivered.
“So it was time for me to speak at graduation and when I reached to get my folder off the podium, my speech wasn’t in there. It was the speech that they wrote. So the only copy I had of my speech was on my phone, so I took out my phone and read my speech,” Wright said. “I was nervous because I was on stage, but what was really a distraction was because while I was reading my speech, they was talking behind my back and I was trying to listen to what they was trying to say and also reading my speech. It was just hard.”
After thanking parents, family, faculty and staff, Wright went on to carry the students on a journey from kindergarten to elementary school, middle school to high school.
“I am no expert in this journey we call life, but we all have the ability to make a difference and to be that change the world needs,” Wright said. “The past 13 years have equipped us for a time as this to stand bold in who we are. So I say to my classmates, cherish these last few minutes we spend here and the memories we have created and get ready for the journey ahead.”
After graduation, students picked up packets that included their diploma, transcript and report card.
“My folder wasn’t in the stack,” Wright said.
Wright was informed that Principal Craig Harris had pulled his packet from the stack.
“I was upset and embarrassed,” Wright said. “All of the seniors was walking around with their bright orange folders and I, being the last one in my class, (was) walking out with nothing in my hand.”
Wright said he feels it was improper for the school officials to ask him to deliver a speech he had not written.
“From what I learned in class, I feel like it violated the First Amendment,” Wright said. “I couldn’t say what I wanted to say and when I tried to say what I wanted to say, there was consequences.”
According to Farrelly, the words in the speech were not a concern.
“I heard his speech and did not have any problems with the content,” Farrelly said. “The content was not an issue.”
“There is an expectation that is communicated to all graduation speakers that the prepared and practiced speech is the speech to be delivered during the ceremony. That was made extremely clear to the speakers. The student did not follow those expectations,” Farrelly said.
Another problem, Farrelly said, was Wright’s use of the phone.
“There is a communicated expectation to all of the speakers that no electronic devices are allowed,” Farrelly said. “The student did not follow those expectations.”
Wright said that during the day Sunday, Principal Harris brought the diploma by his home.
“He handed my diploma and he said, ‘If your mom has got any questions, just give me a call,’ and just walked off,” Wright said. “No apology or anything.”
On Monday, Wright signed commitment papers to enter the U.S. Navy and will report for duty on Oct. 10.