A high school valedictorian exhaled as she pulled a piece of paper from underneath her graduation gown.
Gathering her courage, Paxton Smith started the speech she had worked so hard on for her graduation on Sunday.
But the speech the 18-year-old gave ended up being an entirely different speech than she had planned, and that her school had already approved.
She said she initially was going to talk about TV media and content. Instead, the Dallas teenager decided to use her platform to take a stand against a controversial Texas abortion law that had recently passed.
“I cannot give up this platform to promote complacency and peace, when there is a war on my body and a war on my rights,” Smith said during her Lake Highlands High School graduation speech, which came two weeks after Texas Gov. Greg Abbott signed the so-called “heartbeat ban” abortion bill into law.
The law prohibits most abortions when a fetal heartbeat is detected, which can occur as early as six weeks into pregnancy and before many people know they are pregnant.
The bill requires abortion providers to check for a fetal heartbeat before performing an abortion and prevents them from doing the procedure if one is detected. It makes exceptions “if a physician believes a medical emergency exists,” but not for instances of rape or incest, citing that “public and private agencies provide … emergency contraception for victims of rape or incest.”
The issue weighed on the senior so much that a week and a half before graduation, she said she realized she had to change her speech.
The school district told CNN “a different speech was given than had been submitted to the school in advance,” said Tim Clark, executive director of communications for Richardson Independent School District.
The district includes the following statement in its graduation program each year.
“The students who shall be speaking at the graduation ceremony were selected based on neutral criteria to deliver messages of the students’ own choices. The content of each student speaker’s message is the private, voluntary expression of the individual student and does not reflect the endorsement, sponsorship, position or expression of the District or its employees.”
Smith was hesitant at first to change her speech
Although Smith said she was hesitant about changing her speech to address a political issue, she knew the platform of being valedictorian was too big to pass up.
“I was very upset that the heartbeat bill was passing, and I think I was struggling to focus on something that I was working on for school. I had to write down some of my thoughts on paper to get what I felt out, and it was at that point that I decided to change the speech,” Smith told CNN on Thursday.
“I was definitely going back and forth with myself because I fully anticipated that if I made the speech, there would be some negative repercussions socially. I thought that graduation was the only place where I was going to reach such a large audience and a group with so many different opinions and backgrounds that I was going to be able to make a speech like that.”
Smith said she only told her parents about the speech about a week beforehand. Overall, they were supportive of her decision.
“What father wouldn’t be concerned when your daughter is about to step up and that kind of venue and start talking about something that is divisively controversial?” her father Russell Smith told CNN. “But she felt strongly about it.”
Her father said he had not seen or heard her previous speech. He and his wife were concerned that the microphone could be cut off, but that didn’t happen.
“I know very, very few people, regardless of their age, that have the strength of will and the eloquence and the presence of mind to do what she did,” he said. “She just impresses me so much.
When the time came, Smith gathered up her courage and did what she felt she needed to do. After she was done a round of applause came from the crowd.
“I felt great. I was very surprised at the response,” she said. “It was much louder and more positive than I expected, but as I was walking back to my seat, I was a little bit worried about how the staff was going to handle me afterwards.”
However, no reprimand came.
Russell Smith said he felt “overwhelming pride” when he saw his daughter speak.
“It was it was hard not to be choked up as a father for that. There was definitely tears.”
Her father noted that the response to the speech has been overwhelmingly positive — former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton shared and praised it on Twitter.
“It’s been a very big shock,” Smith said. “I’m very excited about how much traction the speech is getting because I think it’s a very important topic and it needs to be shared.”
Smith is not ruling out a future role in the social justice world — for now, however, all she knows is that she wants to help people.
Whatever form of help she takes, she said she’s excited to attend University of Texas at Austin in the fall.