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May 25, 2003

Best audition, not grades, earn grads speech spotlight

From: Modesto Bee, CA - May 25, 2003


The Cheshire Cat in "Alice in Wonderland" says it doesn't matter what road you take, but Jenna Bryon knows better.

So she stepped up to the podium at Modesto's Downey High School on Thursday afternoon and referred to the story in her bid to become one of two student speakers at graduation June 12.

She said the end of high school is like a fork in the road, because it gives members of the Class of 2003 a chance to ask themselves some hard questions.

What friends should I keep?

Do I really have to work hard?

What will I say if someone offers me drugs or alcohol?

Does it matter if I vote?

What kind of relationships do I want?

"Which way to go?" asked 18-year-old Bryon, who revised her speech 10 times before her tryout.

Parents and grandparents might remember listening to a valedictorian and salutatorian -- students with the highest grade-point averages -- deliver words of wisdom at graduation, but that tradition has been gone for many years in Modesto.

Instead, students who want to give commencement addresses must audition before a committee of teachers and administrators. The auditions give students an opportunity to show they have the poise to deliver a graduation speech, and messages that will wow the crowd.

Students with the best grade-point averages at Downey are to be honored at a ceremony before graduation.

The speeches are left to students who compete for the spotlight and let a teacher help them improve their addresses.

"We tell them to be entertaining, within reason," Principal Thomas Brunskill said.

Valedictorians and salutatorians were eliminated a decade ago, school officials said, for several reasons.

It can be difficult to distinguish between the top students, because they often earn extra points by taking advanced classes and end up with grade-point averages exceeding 4.0, or straight A's.

Sometimes there is only a fraction of a difference between the grade-point averages of the top students.

And students who have high GPAs but did not take advanced classes might not have worked as hard as those who earned good grades while taking tough classes.

"There's seldom ever a top one," said David Cooper, director of secondary education for Modesto City Schools.

All of Modesto's high schools hold auditions for graduation speakers. Thirteen students gave it a try at Downey this year.

Adam Aguilera, 18, who talked about growing up and being witness to terrorism and war, said the audition alone gave him a chill.

"It's kind of a rush when you're about to speak," he said.

Every student said graduation is a crucial milestone, and most recited a laundry list of activities that their fellow students might have enjoyed during four years on campus.

Several speakers offered words of wisdom, by quoting Ralph Waldo Emerson, Winston Churchill or "Chicken Soup for the Teenage Soul."

Some seemed nervous and talked too fast, but they all made eye contact and sprinkled their speeches with punch lines on subjects such as hall passes, powder puff football and freshman year.

Goldamer Thach, 17, said students should not answer the phone if they ditch school. She got caught the one time she tried it.

Patrick Callahan, 17, recalled how good it was to have a hall pass in hand when a campus supervisor approached.

Daniel Hyde, 18, said his classmates should be proud of their accomplishments, thank their teachers and appreciate their great memories of high school.

Maribel Lopez, a 19-year-old who is deaf and delivered her speech in sign language, said she felt like a baby bird when she first stepped on campus, but is ready to leave the nest.

"I now have the wings I need to fly," she said.

Judges graded the students in 10 areas -- including visual contact, persuasive tone and organization.

Hyde and Aguilera were picked to give the graduation speeches, Brunskill said. The judges picked four runners-up, and all will get to address classmates, too.

Lopez will speak at achievement night, where students who always tried their best will be honored.

Callahan and Thach will speak at the senior breakfast and scholarship night.

And Bryon -- who will encourage her classmates to live each day with a sense of gratitude -- will take center stage at the senior talent show.

"Life is unpredictable," Bryon said. "But we're ready."

Copyright © 2003 The Modesto Bee.