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Four Years at the Mount

Inside 100 Years Ago

Object to Negro Giving Commencement Speech

Leeanne Leary
Class of 2017

(3/2017) There is much contention among the graduates of the Waynesboro High School this year on account of one Gladys Willis, a colored girl, being assigned a prominent part in the graduation exercise. For the first time in the history of the high school a Negro will graduate. On account of her high marks the Negro girl has received, she has been selected to deliver one of the commencement speeches. It is for this reason that several of the graduates are rebelling. Several of the class threatened to refuse to appear on the stage commencement night to receive their diplomas.

I heard the whispers this morning, not for the first time. The whispers are normally full of hate, followed by flying crumpled paper, or preceded by an eye roll. This time, though, the whispers were harsh, they were screams. They were punctuated with a distinguished hate and anger. I didnít know what was going on, but every bone and every nerve in my body responded to the heightened attention of this morning, March 4, 1917.

My whole morning felt something like this. Mr. Ritts, my Chemistry teacher handed back my graded exam with a smile that resembled more of a grimace, he lingered for an extra moment before continuing his walk around the classroom.

I have a few friends, but when I passed Marilyn in the hall this morning, she acted like she didnít see me. She turned and laughed with the girl whom she spoke with, brushing past me like I was as despicable or irrelevant as the poster on the wall beside me.

Still confused, I tried to continue my day as normal. I wasnít unaccustomed to the hatred, to the whispers, still, though, something was different.

I kept my head down, repeating words from my Mama over and over again in my head:

No tears, Glad, they donít know what theyíre doing now, but someday they will. Until then, we write our own story. They canít edit a story you write unless you let them.

Still not sure what is going on in this world around me today, I felt a tap on my left shoulder. I look up to see a 9th grader standing at the door with a note for my teacher. The principal wanted to see me in his office.

The principal? I remembered thinking, nothing good has ever started this way.

Ms. Byrns looked at me with the same grimace that Mr. Ritts had earlier as I stood up to walk out of the room. I looked to Ms. Byrns, "Should I bring my things?"

"Yes," she grimaced once more, "bring everything."

Her expression was noted by everyone around me, all of whom snickered as I bent back over to grab my things and made my way to the door. I dropped my pencil about five feet from the door, but couldnít bring myself to look back.

I still had no idea what was about to happen.

I walked, slowly, to the principalís office, accompanied by the 9th grader who trailed about three feet behind me the entire way down the hall.

Iíve been in school for 12 years now, I am almost done. I am almost the first from my family to graduate high school. I am almost the first negro person, and girl, to graduate from Waynesboro High School. I am so close, there are only three months left in the year. I am so close.

I am so close.

I knocked twice on the open door of Mr. Prattís office.

He looked at me and smiled, a real smile. For the first time today, somebody was smiling at me without a shadow of a pained expression or a hint of hatred. Mr. Pratt and I have had our differences. He, too, is going through a first with me and Mama tells me that I should try to understand that.

"Have a seat," he said as he gestured to an open chair with the smile still plastered across his face.

I set my books down on the floor beside me as I found the seat of the chair, fixed my skirt, and folded my hands in my lap, the way I had learned.

"I have some exciting news," Mr. Pratt began.

I walked out of his office exactly 24 minutes later. I walked back to class. I found my seat again, and took out my pencil.

I was going to give a graduation speech.

That is where all the stares and sharp-edged whispers came from. The pitying glances from the teachers, they knew what I was in for. Everybody had heard before me. I was valedictorian. I, the first negro girl to graduate from this high school. I, the first negro valedictorian.

The rest of the day, I didnít have a thought. My shock propelled me through the day, disallowing any fear or anxiousness.

That night, I waited for Mama to get home from work. When she asked how my day was, I walked up to her and placed my left hand on top of hers. I told her the news, but when I did, I felt my eyes well up and the tears, for the first time, began to fall.

What have I gotten myself into?

Mama didnít hesitate for a moment, she pulled her hand away from mine and pulled my whole body towards hers.

"I am so proud of you," she whispered.

I looked back, "Mama, everybody hated me today, and that was before I even agreed. Mama, theyíre going to hate me."

"Remember, my girl, they do not know what they are doing. Let them respond, let them rebel, let them believe that they are right, but show them that they are wrong. They do not know yet what they are doing. They will, Glad, they will. I donít know what will happen, I donít know if the whole town will keep their kids at home when you walk across that stage, but you will walk across that stage, and you will stand in the middle of it and show them that you, Glad, are the valedictorian of that school."

Read other articles by Leeanne Leary