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Graduation speech causes a stir in W.Va. high school

May 22, 1998|By AMY WALLAUER

by Richard T. Meagher / staff photographer

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Erik Nowak

INWOOD, W.Va. - Erik Nowak took advanced placement courses at Musselman High School, worked up to 40 hours each week on his family's Bunker Hill, W.Va., farm, participated in this year's musical and still managed to earn the title of co-valedictorian.

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It's an honor usually rewarded with a chance to speak at graduation.

But not this year.

On Wednesday, just 10 days before Nowak and two other students were to speak at commencement, they were informed that part of the program has been cut, the students said.


Principal John Cole told him it was because the ceremony needed to be shortened, Nowak said.

But Nowak believes it was his speech, which chastised the school for placing more emphasis on athletics than academics, that got them removed from the program.

Cole said this year's 190-member graduating class is the largest in the school's history and he wanted to trim the program so people weren't sitting for too long.

"The reason strictly was the streamlining of the program," he said, adding that the traditional slide show was also cut from the ceremony.

A speech by entertainer and former teacher Michael T. Myers also was canceled, he said.

Speeches from Nowak, co-valedictorian Hillary Dayhoff and salutatorian Jennifer Carter were due for approval on May 5.

Nowak's speech criticized the school for allowing academics to take a back seat to sports. He was asked to revise it, he said.

"I got negative feedback," Nowak said. "(Teachers and students) said, 'Graduation isn't the time or the place. You're going to hurt people.'"

On May 7, Nowak handed in a revised speech, a toned-down version of the original, which still criticized school officials who encouraged athletics over academics and gave little recognition to academic performance.

On May 14, Nowak's mother asked Cole if her son would be permitted to read it.

"He said he didn't have time to make that decision," Beth Nowak said. "I told him I didn't see why a decision had to be made. The three of them were to write a speech for graduation and since there was nothing libelous, in poor taste or profane, he should just let the speeches go. He told me that was my opinion."

Rick Kees, a Musselman High School teacher and a senior class sponsor, said the content of Erik Nowak's speech wasn't brought up in graduation meetings. He was told the speeches may be cut to make the ceremony shorter.

On Wednesday, Cole told the students the speeches were cut because the school wanted to streamline the ceremony, Nowak said.

Carter doesn't believe the speeches were cut because of time constraints. While taking her final exams Thursday, she said she overheard teachers talking about how "Erik had to ruin everything."

"I overheard discussions about how Erik was ruining graduation," Carter said. "Maybe that's their opinion or maybe that's what they heard, but I don't know."

Board of Education President G. William Sonnik III said he didn't know about the proposed changes.

"If canceling these speeches is done purely to muzzle the speaker, then I disagree with that," Sonnik said.

No one mentioned streamlining the ceremony before the speeches were due, Nowak said.

"What really bothers me the most is the way they've gone about it," Erik Nowak said. "They've put a division between me and my friends."

He said many students are angry with him, including Dayhoff, one of his good friends.

"It's not an appropriate speech for graduation," Dayhoff said Thursday. "It's not a time to air grievances."

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