By Katie Reilly
June 15, 2017

When Marvin Wright gave a speech at his North Carolina high school graduation last week, it was not the address school administrators had told him to deliver — and he says the school initially withheld his diploma because of it.

Wright, the senior class president at Southwest Edgecombe High School, said he was surprised and disappointed on the day of his graduation when school administrators gave him prepared remarks to read instead of the speech he had written.

At the podium, Wright, 18, ignored the folder that contained the school’s remarks and pulled out his phone to read his own, after receiving encouragement from his classmates and teachers.

“I looked at my classmates and most of them were nodding their head, like ‘Go ahead, Marvin, read your speech,'” he said.

In the speech, he told his classmates: “Even though I can’t predict the future, I know that we all have the ability to make a difference in this world. For you should have the mindset that not only will you graduate today, but every day is a graduation.”

Marvin Wright holds the mock diploma given to students during his graduation ceremony on June 9, 2017.
courtesy of Marvin Wright

Wright said that each year at Southwest Edgecombe, the senior class president delivers remarks at graduation, and he looked forward to taking part in the tradition. As graduation approached, he wrote the speech he wanted to deliver — only to be told on the morning of graduation that he needed to read brief remarks prepared by the school instead, he said. Wright said the school’s principal, Craig Harris, initially told his mother that he was never supposed to write his own speech and then said he had missed the deadline to turn it in. But Wright said he had not received those guidelines.

“When he got on the stage, I didn’t know which speech he was going to read because he did text me and ask me what should he do,” said his mother, Jokita Wright. “He was kind of confused because he didn’t want to be embarrassed. I just said, ‘Baby, follow your heart.'”

She described her son as an outspoken “people person.” “Everybody loves him, and he’s a great kid at home. He works two jobs, he does his school work, good grades,” she said.

When students lined up to receive their official diplomas after the ceremony, Marvin Wright was told he’d have to retrieve his from the principal. He found the principal’s door locked, so he left the school empty-handed on graduation day.

“It was absolutely an overreaction by the administration and totally uncalled for,” said Edgecombe County Public Schools Superintendent John Farrelly, who apologized to the Wrights on behalf of the school.

“I thought the speech was fine. It was appropriate. I found nothing wrong with the content of the speech,” he said. “The administration gave the order, which never should’ve happened, to pull his diploma. I believe the administration did so because they were upset he didn’t follow the protocol.” In addition to the school preparing remarks — which Farrelly said has happened in the past — that protocol included a ban on electronic devices at the ceremony.

Harris delivered the diploma to Marvin Wright on Sunday.

“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,” Marvin Wright, who is entering into the Navy, said in his address. “The past 13 years have equipped us for a time as this to stand bold in who we are.”

Here are the remarks prepared by the school:

Read Marvin Wright’s full speech here:

Write to Katie Reilly at Katie.Reilly@time.com.

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