Eastern Regional High School Valedictorian Delivers Moving Graduation Speech Despite Censorship Efforts

By: Michael Mandarino, Follow South Jersey Managing Editor

A still from Bryce Dershem’s graduation address. Photo: Michael Dershem

VOORHEES, N.J. — Bryce Dershem, the valedictorian of Eastern Regional High School’s class of 2021, delivered one of the most poignant, candid commencement speeches in the state, if not the country, during his graduation ceremony on June 17. School administrators cut Dershem’s microphone less than two minutes into the speech.

Eastern Regional principal Dr. Robert Tull, who was wearing a cap and gown as part of the ceremony, turned off Dershem’s microphone before taking the microphone and Dershem’s written copy of the speech away from the valedictorian about a minute into the speech.

“For so long, I believed graduation was simply something that happened. I didn’t believe how wrong I was until it almost didn’t happen for me. We brand high school as four years of self-discovery. but few of us even know where to begin. After I came out as queer freshman year, I didn’t know who to turn to for guidance, for support, for …,” Dershem, who identifies as queer, said before Dr. Tull cut off his mic.

Members of the audience began urging those in charge to let Dershem finish his address shortly after Dr. Tull removed the microphone. Another individual gave the valedictorian his microphone back, and he continued his speech from memory.

“Even though my family, my friends, and so many amazing Eastern faculty believed in me, I needed to accept the unapologetic version of myself — for myself. We all do,” Dershem continued. “But before we can even start down this road of self-discovery, we got to make sure we are doing okay and can handle the drive, especially when it comes to mental health.”

In addition to his cap and gown, Dershem was wearing a rainbow flag, the most prominent symbol of support for LGBTQ+ community members, around his back. He continued his speech by sharing some of his mental health struggles — including a six-month bout with anorexia.

Dershem said that the COVID-19 pandemic contributed to some of his mental health issues. However, he also shared the most valuable lesson he learned during his four years of high school — and it has nothing to do with material he learned in class.

“As you walk beyond the halls of 1401 Laurel Oak Road, I would like to share what I believe is the most important thing I have learned at Eastern: You are not alone in your fight,” Dershem said. “With the belief of those around you, you never have to suffer in silence. If you have struggled or will struggle, I believe you, and I hope you will believe others, too. From a formerly suicidal, formerly anorexic queer — the list goes on for me and for all of us — believe me that one person’s belief can save a life.”

Dershem told the Washington Post that the school approved a rewritten version of the speech he delivered for him. However, he went off the school’s approved script and recited his original version from memory after Dr. Tull confiscated his copy of it on stage.

The valedictorian then went on to name those who believed him throughout his fight before sending a message of encouragement and empowerment to his classmates.

“I am a fighter, and today, I am a survivor,” Dershem said as his voice cracked. “And gosh, I am so happy, and so proud to be standing here with you all today — sun on my face, creating this final memory with you all and the life worth living. Whether you are going off to college, enlisting in the military, or joining the workforce, I hope you believe in how much you needed to overcome to simply be here today. It’s incredible and no simple feat.”

You can watch Bryce Dershem’s full address to his classmates below:

June is recognized as Pride Month in the United States. You’ve probably seen more rainbows on TV and the internet this month than you’ll see all year as our nation shows support for the LGBTQ+ community. If you’re wondering why we still need to devote an entire month to raising awareness and support for members of the LGBTQ+ community, look no further than Eastern Regional principal Dr. Robert Tull.

Despite holding a position that requires him to lead and support young people during one of the most confusing and, in Bryce Dershem’s case, difficult times of their lives, Dr. Tull actively and intentionally chose to silence one of his students. Thankfully, Dr. Tull’s stunt failed miserably, as the YouTube video of Dershem’s speech has racked up more than 160,000 views on YouTube as of Monday. Governor Phil Murphy even posted a message responding to Dershem’s speech on Facebook over the weekend.

“To Bryce Dershem – I’m so proud of you for speaking truth to power, and for your resilience and courage. To all of our LGBTQIA+ youth – you belong, you are loved, and we will continue to fight alongside you for equality, inclusion, and respect,” Gov. Murphy wrote.

I have never met Dr. Tull in person, so I can’t say for sure that he is homophobic. I can, however, conclude that Dr. Tull is a fraction of the human that Bryce Dershem is. What makes someone truly human, in my opinion, is their capacity for empathy and respect for others — no matter who they are, where they came from, what their problem is, or their sexual orientation.

As evidenced by his speech, Dershem clearly knows how important it is for people to stand by each other and provide support in the worst of times. In Dershem’s case, the support he received from his friends, classmates, and teachers just might have saved his life — and there are countless other examples of stories just like this one throughout the world.

The principal can learn a lot from the speech he tried to stop Dershem from delivering. I sincerely hope that this incident, which has received national media attention, has taught Dr. Tull not just about the LGBTQ+ community, but about basic human virtues like empathy and respect.

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