Education

DuPont Manual High School Senior Ella Cullen’s original graduation speech came in a flash of inspiration, before the coronavirus pandemic.

“I was sitting outside school waiting for my mom to come and I just like wrote it down. It was so fast and like, just happened so quickly,” she said. “Everything was clear.”

Many schools’ graduation speeches are delivered by the class president or valedictorian. At Manual, seniors enter a competition to be selected as the speech giver. Cullen’s won.

Originally, her speech centered on a Manual tradition. Manual is a competitive magnet high school, and when rising first-years get their acceptance letter, it’s always filled with glittering confetti. Cullen used confetti throughout her original speech as a metaphor for the promise and hope of the class of 2020. At the end, seniors were supposed to throw their caps into the air together along with an explosion of confetti.

Then the pandemic hit.

Cullen’s speech could no longer be delivered in person on stage. Instead, it would be prerecorded and streamed online for a virtual graduation. And of course, the graduation ceremony wasn’t the only thing upended by the pandemic. Everything had changed. That clarity she had when she wrote her first speech was gone. Cullen had to rewrite the speech. But it wasn’t easy.

“It took me a while to write down something that was positive,” Cullen said.

Cullen’s senior year has been turned upside. No prom, no sports. Her college plans are up in the air. She let herself mourn those things as she wrote. This is from the beginning of her revised speech.

What are the chances that it would end this way? No night of dancing and dress up, no teary walk through the hallways, no more practices, games, or meetings. No goodbye hugs, no hugs at all.

“That definitely helped me hash out some of the negativity,” she said.

Then she had another moment of inspiration.

“I was talking to my cousin, and I just thought of the phrase, ‘We got closer when we were six feet apart,'” she said.

She was thinking about all the ways she’s seen her community come together during the pandemic, like when the school planted graduation signs in seniors’ yards.

“Just how much I’ve been checking in on my friends, and how many times I’ve said, ‘I love you during this break,'” she said.

She began to think about the unexpected moments of growth and joy. Here’s another excerpt:

What are the chances we could live through this moment? That we could reach out to neighbors, that we could write our first poem, that we could write letters to loved ones…. that we could save lives every day.

Once she started thinking about the silver linings, more and more positives came to mind.

“It feels like we’re very unlucky right now because so much has not gone our way, especially in these past weeks, but overwhelmingly how lucky we’ve been and the chances that have been in our favor that we might not think about,” she said.

What are the changes that we would be together for these almost four years? The chances that we would have lunches in that courtyard, and lose our voice at those sweaty pep rallies and walk through those halls…and gaze upon that iconic façade?

Cullen realized there are things the pandemic can’t take away from the class of 2020: their memories, their relationships, their learning and the impact they’ve made over the last 4 years, including during the pandemic.

I have seen us speak out for a cause…I have seen us condemn inequities that this global pandemic has illustrated clearly. I have seen us chose positivity and strength in a time that tests our hope the most. And I now see us prepared for a world that does not always grace us with luck.

Cullen’s new speech ends much like her original one — with hope, and a little confetti.

You can watch Cullen deliver both versions of the speech below.

Jess Clark is WFPL's Education and Learning Reporter.