When Pascack Valley High School’s 2023 valedictorian, Kareena Shah, chose to share her personal struggles and experiences with racial discrimination and health issues in her graduation speech, it reverberated beyond the ceremony. Shah’s compelling narrative unveiled a deeply personal side of her journey, one that highlighted the pervasive racism she encountered as an Indian American student and her resilience in the face of adversity. However, it seems the message from Shah’s speech didn’t land with everyone as intended.
In the subsequent Pascack Valley School Board meeting, rather than engaging with the issues brought forth in Shah’s speech, discussions revolved around censoring future graduation speeches. The board cited Shah’s address as sparking “a lot of fervor in the community.”
One board member reported, “Whether you agree with them or don’t agree with them, it caused a lot of fervor in the community. I got accosted this week at a public pool for an hour, and it’s not going away.”
As a result, the board is considering implementing guidelines to control the content of speeches at commencement ceremonies. “What guidelines can we potentially consider, which will drive the content of speeches, not only by students, but as we know by teachers, or anybody that’s making a speech at a commencement?” the member asked.
Shah, in her speech, spoke about her experiences being ridiculed for her Indian identity and her struggle with alopecia. “As I grew older, this overt and subtle racism didn’t end. Recently, I’ve seen culturally appropriative ‘Nama-slay’ posters and flags and chants of the Indian mascot on the walls to being stereotyped and asked if I celebrated Ramadan after decades of Diwali celebrations around the school,” she explained.
Yet, despite these challenges, Shah’s message was one of resilience, perseverance, and redefining success beyond societal expectations. “True success is not in the result. Rather, it is in the journey,” she stated.
One could argue that the school board’s response, rather than addressing the issues of racism and stereotyping that Shah bravely brought to light, is a testament to the urgency of her message.
A separate discussion at the meeting revolved around the behavior of students during graduation, specifically the smoking of cigars on school grounds. The board suggested the need for explicit written guidelines to address behavior and speech content at graduations.
In an attempt to establish control over these types of incidents, the board plans to involve principals or their designees in drafting these guidelines. It was concluded that the principals would start seeking examples of such policies and then meet as an administration team to hash out a policy to be presented at a future policy committee meeting.
While the school board’s concerns about maintaining decorum at graduation ceremonies are understandable, the focus on censoring voices rather than acknowledging and addressing the issues raises questions. Shah’s closing words are an apporpriate reminder for the community: “We will be remembered for who we were, our character, and for the qualities we exuded that touched the hearts of those around us.”