What making a speech (and being denied my diploma) taught me about work and life

Maria Dal Pan
3 min readJun 20, 2016

In high school, I was granted the honor of delivering a graduation speech. It did not go as planned.

It was 1996, and I was class president at Clifton High School in suburban NJ. A theater geek and garage band musician (in other words, a spotlight hog), the idea of delivering the address thrilled me to the core. Weeks before graduation, I started writing.

I decided I wanted my speech to be authentic and light, not the usual “best years of our lives” cliché. So I wrote about the high school moments I’d truly miss — and the parts I wouldn’t. With recently installed security cameras and changes that restricted outdoor access, in my view, the school environment had changed from a place of curiosity and independence to one of oppression. “Our four-year sentence is up!” I wrote. It was cheeky, but it was honest.

I worked on the speech with one of my favorite English Literature teachers. She handed the final version to the school’s three vice principals for review, and they approved. Everything looked good.

But two nights before graduation, she called me at home.

“We need to talk,” she said.

My heart beat in my throat.

“The principal read your speech. He wants you to write a new one. He wants you to talk about the football team and how helpful the Board of Education has been.”

I was stunned. I had friends who played football, but in four years, I’d only seen one game. And the Board of Ed? I had spent my whole year as president protesting outdated traditions, championing gender equality and Title IX. With the exception of one female official, I found the rest of them useless.

When I hung up the phone my wet eyes burned.

Then my father offered me a shocking solution. He said, “Maria, who cares? When you get up there, say whatever you want. It’s your speech. What’s the worst they can do? Cut the microphone?”

I took his advice. I felt bad lying, but I wrote a fake speech hitting all the bogus points. The following day I practiced it aloud for the principal as he nodded approval.

Graduation night arrived and I knew what I had to do. In front of thousands of people, I explained what happened and how “I’m going to say what I want to say” because “I’m nobody’s puppet.” I read the original speech.

My classmates cheered.

But the next day, when we gathered in the school library to receive our official diplomas, mine was missing. The principal withheld it.

The local newspapers picked up the story. All summer, people wrote letters to the editors either applauding or condemning me. Even some adults I knew questioned what I had done.

Eventually, my diploma showed up in the mail.

That was 20 years ago this month, and while that’s pretty far in the rear-view, I still rely on the lessons the experience taught me:

  1. Take risks. Success in life comes from figuring out which rules you can break, and having the guts to break them. Some things you need to do without seeking permission.
  2. Walk the talk. My classmates elected me because I was discontented and outspoken; I’m glad I did not let them down. The best leaders stand behind what they believe in, even (and especially) when it is not easy.
  3. Always be true to yourself. I often imagine what would have happened if I had read the principal’s version of the speech. I would have lost the respect of the people I cared about most — and, importantly, myself.

After graduation, life went on. Crazy things happened, as they do. That speech helped me land my first internship. I won a gazebo on The Price Is Right and donated it to Clifton High (it’s still there). I graduated college, and I went on to have a great career as a journalist.

Most recently though, that experience has come in handy in a way I never would have imagined. Over the past few years, I’ve had the pleasure of working with government officials, philanthropists and CEOs.

What do I do? I help them write speeches.

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Maria Dal Pan

Writer, editor, collaborator and expert on visual language. Interested in working together? Find me at https://erwinparkcommunications.com