A writer friend of mine was invited to speak to a high school graduation one year, and the highlight of his speech, he remembered, came when he asked the graduating seniors to look at the classmate to each side of them and to ponder this frightening vision:

“Can you imagine either one of them as a future leader of America?”

The line, a funny jab at your typical graduation pabulum, got a big laugh, although if you think about many of our so-called leaders today, it may not seem quite so hilarious in retrospect.

In any case, those high school seniors were gifted with the rarest of graduation memories — a speech that you could actually quote five minutes after it was delivered.

I have little memory of my high school graduation. Of course, I’m in the age-challenged group, so it was a while ago. And yet I can vividly recall the song everyone was singing in school that spring — “We Gotta Get Out of This Place” by the Animals. And, as it turned out, most of us did. Some of us even went to college.

But I don’t remember what anyone said at my graduation or even who the guest speaker was — if there was one — but that’s the way these speeches are supposed to go. It’s as if there were a rule against saying anything memorable. Cliches, on the other hand, are as welcome as the day is long.

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And yet, as we see every year, somewhere there’s a high school valedictorian who wants to talk about something, you know, topical, like maybe the overturning of Roe v. Wade. Usually if it’s abortion or gay rights or anything too political, the principal strips anything provocative from the draft of the speech the student is expected to give.

And then there are those students — not necessarily the speaker — who want to wear something beyond a standard cap and gown, something that might make a statement. Those requests are usually denied on the basis that graduation ceremonies are planned with little regard for, you know, the interests of the students.

Still, there are always some students who don’t back down, despite the threat that an act of disobedience might go on, yes, their permanent records. We see speakers whose mics are turned off. Students who are denied their diplomas. Students who brave the risk that debate on the First Amendment might break out, which is probably illegal to discuss on school grounds in several states.

We didn’t have anything quite so dramatic in Colorado graduation this year, but we did get some level of graduation drama — one in a high school ceremony and one from a college — and, in both cases, I’d say there was a happy ending. Which is not the way these things typically turn out.

You may know the story of Naomi Peña Villasano, who graduated from Grand Valley High School in Parachute over the weekend. She had asked to wear a sash over her robe that would honor both the Mexican flag, representing her heritage, and the American flag, representing her country.

She was refused, of course, not only by the school and by the school district, but also by a federal judge. The school district noted that students were allowed to decorate their mortarboards, but that only certain academic and civic achievements could be displayed on the gown. The argument from the school district was that if you give in to one cause, whatever its value, you might face students sporting swastikas next.

That’s a ridiculous argument, of course. No one would be allowed to wear white supremacist jargon on the gown, and, besides, if decorating your mortarboard is allowed, someone could just as easily put a swastika there.

Here’s where we get to the happy ending. When the moment came for Peña Villasano to receive her diploma, she bravely removed the forbidden sash from under her robe and wore it anyway. She wasn’t pulled from the stage. She wasn’t tackled by an assistant football coach. She got her diploma and, in a particularly moving gesture, the principal gave her a fist bump. 

No one booed, although there was some reported dissatisfaction that the case had gotten so much attention and caused so much distraction from the other graduates. There was, of course, attention from the media, from the state legislature, where a bill to allow such a sash might be offered next year, from the governor’s office, where Jared Polis offered Peña Villasano his support.

You could blame the student for all this. I’d blame everyone else.

Still, a happy ending all in all, which could even get happier if the rules do get changed by the legislature, which this year passed a law allowing Native American students to wear traditional attire at graduation. 

And so we move to the story of former U.S. Rep. Liz Cheney’s speech at Colorado College, where she and much of her family are alumni and where Cheney was invited to address the graduates.

Cheney has become a controversial figure  — from the left, because she is seen as being on the wrong side of abortion and LGBTQ rights, and from the Trumpist right, where she is seen as a traitor to the cause for standing up to Donald Trump, especially in her prominent role on the January 6 committee. She lost her seat in the U.S. House for attempting to call Trump to account. 

She’s still fighting against Trump. Even though I disagree with nearly all of her politics, and even though I’ve long been dismayed by the Cheney dynasty, I applaud Liz Cheney’s bravery. She did the right thing, which is rare for most people and even more rare for those in the political arena.

Still, approximately half the Colorado College students turned their chairs around so they wouldn’t be facing Cheney, as an act of disapproval of her politics.

There was apparently no heckling, though, and even some cheering from the dissidents when Cheney took her best shots at Trump and his threat to American democracy.

And so, Cheney was allowed to speak. Students were allowed to show their disapproval. No one was censured. No one was Bud-Lighted. 

Cheney did not criticize the students for their chair-turning protest. And no wonder. When she called for more women to run for office, she didn’t mention that she is still considering whether to enter the GOP presidential primary. If she did run, it would be, of course, as a protest candidate.

When Cheney finished speaking, the dissenting students turned their chairs back around to face the speakers. The ceremony continued.

It’s almost as if, in this graduation season, we could all learn a valuable lesson in the exercise of free expression.

Mike Littwin has been a columnist for too many years to count. He has covered Dr. J, four presidential inaugurations, six national conventions and countless brain-numbing speeches in the New Hampshire and Iowa snow. Sign up for Mike’s newsletter.

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