Peter Butera veered off the preapproved speech at his graduation ceremony on June 16, to criticize Pennsylvania’s Wyoming Area School District for its handling of the student government. (Wyoming Area School District)
Peter Butera, class president for the entirety of his life as a high school student — all four often-frustrating years of it — took the stage at Friday’s graduation ceremony after the recital of the class poem, which had offended no one.
When the principal of Wyoming Area Secondary Center in Exeter, Pa., had finished applauding the poem, Butera walked up and laid his speech on the podium: the lines he’d dutifully cleared with administrators, and those he had not.
Butera was 18, bound for Villanova University in a few months. He was his class valedictorian, and he was beginning to get nervous about his plan to go rogue at the last possible minute.
“Good evening, everyone,” Butera began, innocuously enough. “The past four years at Wyoming Area have been very interesting, to say the least.”
Across the field, by the running track, Butera’s family watched with his girlfriend, who was taking video. In front of the stage sat nearly 200 classmates, nearly all of whom Butera said he knew well, for he had lived here his whole life.
On the chair to Butera’s left sat the principal, Jon Pollard, who barely looked up at him.
“To everyone here today, we cannot thank you enough for everything you’ve done for us,” Butera said.
Pollard scratched his face. So far so good. Butera kept thanking people for a while: Teachers he was close to, “a couple great administrators as well.”
He did not name Pollard among them — an omission not lost on one of the few people there who knew exactly how his speech would end.
“It was always Dr. Pollard,” Albert Sciandra, Butera’s friend and vice president in the student government, told The Washington Post. “He was the one who kept shooting everything Peter wanted to do down.”
The day before the ceremony, Sciandra said, the school had put on a talent show. Butera wanted to do a comedy skit: poke fun at the only teacher who ate the cafeteria lunch, stuff like that.
But such jokes were deemed too extreme, Sciandra said. “Peter rewrote them so many times. Pollard said, ‘You’re not doing it because I said so.’ ”
All of high school had been like that, Sciandra told The Post. No matter that they’d both been in student government every single year, he said — any idea that went beyond decorations for some school-approved event got shot down.
So when, a week or so before the ceremony, Butera told his friend that he’d written a secret end to the approved speech — that he planned to expose a system he saw as a sham — Sciandra understood it had to be done.
Though as he sat on the field Friday, Sciandra still doubted his class president would go through with it.
Butera’s speech was now nearing its end. “I have pursued every leadership opportunity available to me,” he told the crowd. He’d been repeatedly elected class president. An honor each time.
“I would like to thank you all for that one final time,” he said. “It really means a lot.”
But it hadn’t meant much to the school, he was thinking, Butera later told The Washington Post. He was remembering the past summer, when he and Sciandra organized protests of a proposed dress code.
“Me and Peter, we went to every council meeting and school-board meeting,” Sciandra said. They packed the seats with students and parents and made speeches, and filled a petition with signatures.
And none of it mattered, the students said: The dress code passed anyway.
“It really means a lot,” Butera continued from the stage.
Pollard still was not looking at him, but Sciandra braced in his seat.
“At our school, the title of class president can more accurately be class party planner,” Butera said. “Student council’s main obligation is to paint signs every week.”
At that moment, from his chair, Pollard made what may have been a grimace and finally turned to watch the valedictorian as he hit the climax of his speech.
“Despite some of the outstanding people in our school,” Butera went on, “a lack of a real student government combined with the authoritative attitude that a few teachers, administrators and board members have …”
The principal mouthed something to someone offstage.
” … prevented students from truly developing as true leaders …”
A mechanical bang interrupted his words as the microphone shut down. When Butera spoke his next line, his voice was naked. He had not expected that.
“Hopefully this will change,” he said, speaking louder, trying to be heard.
“Hopefully, for the sake of future students, more people in this school — ”
Butera would have said more. He would have said he hoped future classes would have more educators who valued empowering students as much as they valued educating them. That leadership is a hard thing to learn within the strictures of a public school system.
“It is not what we have done as Wyoming Area students or athletes that will define our lives,” he had written on the paper his principal had not seen, “but what we will go on to do as Wyoming Area Alumni.”
Butera didn’t get to say the last lines. Now Pollard was on his feet, tapping the student’s elbow, mouthing something above a dead microphone.
“He said, ‘Alright Peter. You’re done,’ ” Butera told The Post.
But neither man could be heard now. The field was erupting with cheers, boos and screams: “Let him speak! Let him speak! Let him speak!”
In the back, by Butera’s mother, father, girlfriend, grandma, aunt and uncle, someone said: “I’m so proud.”
The rest of the ceremony would go more or less as officials had planned. The faculty would take turns making speeches. Pollard would give the Class of 2017 his advice: “Read good books and watch bad movies,” and “Clean your room and learn to do you own laundry.” And “watch what you put on social media.”
Irony. A few days after the ceremony, a grainy video of Butera’s speech spread wildly across the Internet — more than 75,000 endorsements on Reddit alone. Then came the news stories. While Pollard didn’t immediately respond to The Post, superintendent Janet Serino defended his silencing.
“The young man submitted his graduation speech to his principal and delivered a speech different from the speech that was submitted,” she wrote. But she had since reached out to Butera, requesting a meeting to discuss his concerns.
Wyoming Area Secondary Center’s valedictorian for 2017 had not called out his principal or superintendent or anyone else in his speech — not the approved version, or the rogue ending, or even the part he didn’t get to read.
And Butera declined to criticize any school authority by name when he spoke to The Post. He said that hadn’t been the point of his final act as class president.
“I’m supposed to represent the students,” he said.
And on his last day of high school, when the principal cut off his microphone and waved him off the stage and he walked back to his seat through a standing ovation, he felt that he finally had.