Thursday, October 14, 2010

Segregation silenced this valedictorian: Mary French's inspiring speech, 42 years late

I want you to bookmark this blog post and pull it out on another day when you need encouragement in public speaking and persistence, because it is a tale that will make your speaking troubles look small.

Kevin O'Neal of The Indianapolis Star reported a remarkable story today about special education teacher Mary French, who got to give her high school valedictorian speech...this week, 42 years after her graduation from Arkansas's Foreman High School.  French, who is black, attended the all-black half of the high school until the two merged during her years there. But when she graduated in 1968 with the highest grade-point average in the school, it was determined that she hadn't attended for all four years--since some of them were spent in the segregated side of Foreman, across town.  A white girl in her class gave the valedictory address instead.

From the article:
Over the years, French has returned to Foreman -- a town of about 1,100 just a few miles from where Arkansas, Oklahoma and Texas come together -- and each time, she has felt disappointment when walking past a display honoring the school's valedictorians. French, now 60, shared her story with her colleagues at Fall Creek Valley Middle School, a Northeastside school where she has taught special education for 20 years.  "We heard that story, and our jaws hit the floor," Kathy Luessow, principal at Fall Creek Valley Middle School, said Wednesday. "We asked how that could happen, and she said that was a different time."
French finally got to give her valedictory speech--the one she intended to give decades ago--at a special after-school gathering for family and colleagues, and she got all the ceremonial extras that come with being a valedictorian, thanks to the school where she now teaches.  Here's a taste of what that 18-year-old wanted to say at the time:
We know this is only the beginning of a long journey. We understand as we go to college, we still will be confronted with obstacles that will certainly deter us. But remember, all things are possible if we believe....Let's travel. Let's start our own businesses. Let's become teachers. Let's become lawyers, doctors or whatever we desire. We should commend ourselves that we can be whatever we want to be.
You can read the valedictory speech she wrote, in full, here.  Yes, the words read poignantly today, in light of the story--her "all things are possible if we believe" theme turned out to be true.  But more than that, this is an excellent valediction, with simple but stirring language, a hopeful view of the future, a focus on students and teachers, and fitting, rather than overdone, rhetorical flourishes.

If someone knows of video out there of this late-in-coming valediction, please leave a link to it in the comments.  I'm so delighted to share this wonderful story with you, and welcome your reactions.  Please do pass this on to a friend or colleague and share this inspiring tale.

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