It all began a few weeks ago, when Boy in Black was asked to submit his valedictory speech to the high school administration for approval. He knew what he submitted would raise eyebrows and cause a commotion in this conservative community. And of course, he was right.
His speech, written as advice to his classmates, was about the music of Bob Dylan, and his own conviction that questioning authority and protesting against the dominant culture is more important now than ever. His speech included a song he had written with those beliefs in mind. His plan was to bring both guitar and harmonica to the podium, and sing the words he had written to the music of Bob Dylan’s Subterranean Homesick Blues.
His submission of the speech led to a flurry of emails, with administrators suggesting changes and Boy in Black politely explaining why he wasn't going to change what he wrote. The revisions they suggested had nothing to do with making the song stronger, and everything to do with changing the content. Boy in Black’s refusal to comply with the suggested revisions led to several meetings with the principal and assistant principals. Boy in Black brought his guitar over to the high school and performed the song for some of the administrators. Some English teachers and the band director got involved, supporting what he intended to do. The school board and the superintendent were given copies of the song.
No one wanted to actually come out and say that they disagreed with his message: instead, they just kept picking at particular lines. Here are just a few examples.
One administrator didn’t like this line from the beginning of the speech: "Now I don’t think I did the song justice because, ironically, I was pretty busy getting my conscientious objector file together these past few weeks, but I think Dylan would be okay with that." Boy in Black’s view was that if the school was willing to allow members of the military, in full uniform, on stage at graduation in tacit support of the military, they certainly ought to allow him to voice an alternative view.
One administrator complained that the song was way too dark. The song contained references to the war in Iraq, to the No Child Left Behind Act, and the death of Emmet Till. "You are right," said Boy in Black. "The song is dark. That's my point. These are dark times."
One administrator didn't like the following lines: "Administrators still preach/To stifle students' free speech/Mold a puppet out of each." ("They gonna tell me to take those lines out?" asked Boy in Black. "That would certainly be ironic.")
Another administrator didn't like the line: "Don’t follow cheaters/Just because they’re leaders." Boy in Black was prepared to give hundreds of examples from both history and current times to explain why that line was good advice.
An assistant principal visited Spouse at work and showed him changes she wanted Boy in Black to make on the speech. Spouse told her that Boy in Black could make his own decisions, and he had complete confidence in his son. Boy in Black, angry that the administration would put pressure on his parent, called the school and politely asked for an appointment with the acting principal. He went in, calmly explained his reason for each lyric they had questioned, and stood his ground. He had decided that he would rather not give a speech than allow his words to be censored.
Eventually, thanks to at least one open-minded administrator, he was given the go-ahead for the speech.
And so this morning, at the big convention center downtown, in front of thousands of people, with the conservative members of the school board, the superintendent, all the principals, and several high-ranking members of the military sitting behind him on the stage, Boy in Black got up to the podium to give his speech. He choose not to wear the mortar board or his honor society sash. In black pants and a black shirt, his royal blue gown open and billowing behind him like a cape, he strode across the stage to pick up his electric guitar and put on his harmonica necklace, shaking his long hair out of his eyes as he did so.
He spoke directly to the hundreds of classmates who sat before him in their blue robes and caps, and told them why he thought Bob Dylan’s message was still important. When he said that he was a conscientious objector, a murmur rose from the crowd, sounds of both approval and disapproval, with some pockets of applause. And then he began singing, confidently and clearly, the lyrics he had written.
In the second verse, his classmates stopped him with a round of spontaneous applause. He paused, smiling, and waited until the applause died down before he finished the verse and went on to the next five. At the end, his classmates did something I’ve never seen before at a high school graduation. They gave him a standing ovation.