You know the drill. Every valedictorian has to get her speech approved before she delivers it at commencement. You can’t let high school kids — even really smart, hardworking, responsible kids — just get up and say whatever they want to say. That leads to chaos and rioting.
So Paxton Smith, the valedictorian of Lake Highlands High School’s Class of 2021, with her 104.93 average, submitted her speech ahead of Sunday’s commencement ceremony at the high school stadium. It was about media and how much of it she consumes and how that consumption has shaped the way she sees the world.
But another matter kept nagging at her. She couldn’t stop thinking about the “heartbeat bill” that Gov. Greg Abbott had signed into law last month. The law prohibits abortions as early as six weeks, before many women know they are pregnant, and it matters not if the pregnancy results from incest or rape. Abortion rights activists say it is the most restrictive law in the country. It will go into effect in September.
The more Smith thought about it, the more she was drawn to the conclusion that there was nothing more important that she could address with her time at the microphone.
Smith talked to her three parents about her decision. Two of them read her new speech and approved; the third wasn’t thrilled but agreed to keep quiet.
She’s an outgoing person by nature, but knowing what sort of reaction her remarks might spark filled Smith with trepidation leading up to Sunday. She practiced the speech again and again, to the point that she didn’t need to think about the words. On Sunday, as she climbed the stairs to the stage, her mind went blank.
At the lectern, with a shaky voice, she began by thanking one of her coaches. Then she pulled from her bra a single piece of paper, folded in quarters, and told people what was on her mind. Her voice grew stronger with each sentence. At the end of her three minutes, she was in full command of that stage.
See for yourself. Smith’s speech starts at the 4:30 mark:
Two days after her speech, Smith says, “It feels great. It also feels a little weird. Whenever I have opinions that can be considered political or controversial, I keep them to myself because I don’t like to gain attention for that kind of stuff. But I’m glad that I could do something, and I’m glad that it’s getting attention. It just feels weird for me personally, that I’m linked to the attention that the speech got.”
Some of the attention she got, of course, was from administrators. She heard from a couple who initially said that the school could withhold her diploma, but nothing has come of that. Smith is headed to UT Austin and says she doesn’t yet know what she wants to study.
I asked her if there was anything else she wanted people to know.
“Oh, my goodness,” Smith said, as she considered the question. “Well, I would like them to know that they should register to vote for the next election and to stay involved in local elections because those have more power than I think the media gives them credit for.”
From her lips to God’s and Gov. Abbott’s ears.
May 30, 2021
As we leave high school we need to make our voices heard. I was going to get up here and talk to you about TV and content and media because those are things that are very important to me. However, in light of recent events, it feels wrong to talk about anything but what is currently affecting me and millions of other women in this state.
Recently the heartbeat bill was passed in Texas. Starting in September, there will be a ban on abortions that take place after 6 weeks of pregnancy, regardless of whether the pregnancy was a result of rape or incest. 6 weeks. Most women don’t even realize they’re pregnant by then. And so, before they have the time to decide if they are emotionally, physically, and financially stable enough to carry out a full-term pregnancy, before they have the chance to decide if they can take on the responsibility of bringing another human into the world, the decision has been made for them by a stranger. A decision that will affect the rest of their lives.
I have dreams, hopes, and ambitions. Every girl here does. We have spent our whole lives working towards our futures, and without our consent or input, our control over our futures has been stripped away from us. I am terrified that if my contraceptives fail me, that if I’m raped, then my hopes and efforts and dreams for myself will no longer be relevant. I hope you can feel how gut-wrenching it is, how dehumanizing it is, to have the autonomy over your own body taken from you.
And I’m talking about this today, on a day as important as this, on a day honoring the students’ efforts in twelve years of schooling, on a day where we’re all brought together, on a day where you will be the most inclined to hear a voice like mine, a woman’s voice, to tell you that this is a problem. A problem that can’t wait. I refuse to give up this platform to promote complacency and peace, when there is a war on my body and a war on my rights. A war on the rights of your sisters, a war on the rights of your mothers, a war on the rights of your daughters.
We cannot stay silent.