We take our seats in the back row of the darkened school auditorium. This morning Sam will deliver his senior speech, a milestone for every graduating senior, but especially for our son, who will be sharing his very personal story publicly in front of the entire high school student body. As I sit nervously picking off my nail polish finger-by-finger, I can see Sam on a folding chair next to one other student on stage. At the podium is a girl who is finishing her speech, which causes my stomach to knot, knowing he will be next.
“Our final speaker today will be Sam,” the emcee announces to the audience and with that I watch as my brave son stands to share a story that is sure to surprise most, and challenge the culture of respect for which this school is known.
As he begins to speak, what strikes me first is his strong, deep voice. No longer is this the voice of a child who is weary and defeated. The Sam before us now is a young man who exudes a confident tone as he speaks each word of his speech with a slow and deliberate determination.
“When I was little I went by the name ‘Samantha’ because I was assigned female at birth. Even so, I wasn’t fooled by my feminine name, or the societal expectations that kept pressuring me back to the female gender box, I knew I was a rough and tumble Matchbox loving boy. I am transgender, which means that my gender identity does not match my birth-assigned sex.”
For the next eight minutes 500 students listen attentively, as he reveals his life experience and explains why he has come to this school.
“I have only been a student here for one year. Before I transferred here, the bullying, and isolation at my previous school put me in a deep depression. I experienced chronic bladder infections because I didn’t have a bathroom to use at school, and not one person ever stood up for me.”
The profound silence of the audience speaks for itself, interrupted only by sniffles of empathy as Sam continues to bare his soul. His words reopen wounds in my heart, remembering all the hurt I tried in vain to shield him from over the years. Wounds that left scars I feel every day as I send him out into a world that can be less than kind to people like him.
“I transitioned to be my true self in seventh grade and was happier then, expressing my true gender identity as a boy, but my classmates bullied me even more. The bullying and loneliness became too much. I couldn’t handle the looks, whispers, and stares and so I shut down.”
Seated next to me, my broad-shouldered husband uses a bandana—his form of a hanky—to wipe away tears as the magnitude of what we are witnessing overcomes him. All the nights we took turns laying in Sam’s bottom bunk holding him as he cried himself to sleep; battles with doctors encouraging us to wait, ‘just to make sure;’ the constant fear of him ending his life; I know my husband’s tears come from years of stress and worry and our daily struggle to just keep him alive. Years marked by the feeling we were merely holding on by our fingernails.
“I wasn’t able to look beyond the dark clouds that skewed my vision; I wasn’t able to experience true happiness until I came to this school for my senior year. The support each and every one of you has offered, probably without even knowing it, means the world to me.”
Educating hearts and minds is this school’s operating philosophy, and with that comes a culture of kindness and respect that is an inherent expectation of everyone within the community. At that moment I realize I am witnessing the power of inclusion, knowing Sam came to this school barely surviving and now before me on that stage, is a child that is undeniably thriving.
“I hope you remember other things about me too—I hope you remember that I love to ski, travel, learn, and laugh, and that even though Spanish is hard, it’s one of my favorite classes. I hope you remember me for me.”
Reflecting on all the decisions we have made for this child—legal, medical, and academic decisions most parents never have to consider—and remembering the fear and self-doubt that came with each one, moving him to this school is the one decision I know for sure we got right.
“Because of you, my experience at this school has been lifesaving and life changing. Here I found genuine happiness, friendships, and self-confidence. I also found the voice I am using today, to be who I am without being afraid to walk down school hallways. Because of your encouragement, I feel empowered to be myself.”
Before the last word of his speech reaches our ears, the entire audience leaps to their feet, showering him with thunderous applause. Applause that is not only a compliment to Sam’s speech, but also a validation of his worth as a human being, something he has never received from his peers before.