The speech that high school valedictorian Paxton Smith pulled from inside her graduation gown was not the one she had shown the school. So she took a deep breath before launching into it, wondering whether she would be allowed to share her thoughts about Texas' new restrictive abortion law.
"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 in her speech at the graduation ceremony for Lake Highlands High School in Dallas.
Despite swapping her text, Smith finished her speech and got a rousing cheer from her classmates and staff. In the days since her address on Sunday, video of the event has gone viral, and Smith has been praised for speaking her mind. (You can read a full transcript of her speech below.)
"I have dreams, and hopes and ambitions. Every girl graduating today does," Smith said. She later added, "And without our input and without our consent, our control over that future has been stripped away from us."
Smith concluded her speech by stating, "We cannot stay silent."
Her remarks came less than two weeks after Texas Gov. Greg Abbott signed new restrictions into law that ban abortion as soon as a fetal heartbeat can be detected — as early as six weeks.
As Smith noted, many women do not realize they're pregnant at six weeks. The law does not allow exceptions for cases of rape or incest.
The senior had intended to use her speech to talk about TV and the media, but, she said, "it feels wrong to talk about anything but what is currently affecting me and millions of other women in the state."
Smith says she has received hundreds of messages of support, as videos of her graduation speech were widely shared across social media. In many ways, the speech went better than she anticipated, especially since the school had raised the possibility of remarks being cut short if they diverged from the approved script.
"I thought that the microphone was going to get cut off a couple minutes in, but it didn't," Smith told local TV station WFAA in Dallas.
In a statement released to local media, the Richardson Independent School District, which includes Lake Highlands, says that students choose their own messages to share at graduation. But noting that Smith's speech was not approved and "not in the podium book" of remarks for the event, the district says it will look at ways to prevent similar switches from taking place in the future.
Smith's father, Russell Smith, tells the Lake Highlands Advocate that he's proud of his daughter.
"It was something that she felt was important, and she had the nerve, determination and boldness to put herself out there and say her piece," he said. "So few people demonstrate this level of maturity and poise, regardless of age."
The text of Smith's speech, as transcribed by NPR:
I'm not usually very good at expressing my gratitude for the people that I care about. But I would like to say "thank you" to Coach. I think he's had a bigger role in my life than he realizes. [deep breath]
As we leave high school, we need to make our voices heard. Today, I was going to talk about TV and media and content, because it's something that's very important to me. However, under light of recent events, it feels wrong to talk about anything but what is currently affecting me and millions of other women in the state.
Recently, the Heartbeat Bill was passed in Texas. Starting in September, there will be a ban on abortions after six weeks of pregnancy, regardless of whether the pregnancy was a result of rape or incest.
Six weeks. That's all women get. And so before they realize — most of them don't realize that they're pregnant by six weeks — so before they have a chance to decide if they are emotionally, physically and financially stable enough to carry out a full-term pregnancy, before they have the chance to decide if they can take on the responsibility of bringing another human being into the world, that decision is made for them by a stranger.
A decision that will affect the rest of their lives is made by a stranger.
I have dreams and hopes and ambitions. Every girl graduating today does. And we have spent our entire lives working towards our future. And without our input and without our consent, our control over that future has been stripped away from us. [applause]
I am terrified that if my contraceptives fail, I am terrified that if I am raped, then my hopes and aspirations and dreams and efforts for my future will no longer matter. I hope that you can feel how gut-wrenching that is. I hope you can feel how dehumanizing it is, to have the autonomy over your own body taken away from you.
And I'm talking about this today — on a day as important as this, on a day honoring 12 years of hard academic work, on a day where we are all gathered together, on a day where you are most inclined to listen to a voice like mine, a woman's voice — to tell you that this is a problem, and it's a problem that cannot wait.
And 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. A war on the rights of your mothers [cheers], a war on the rights of your sisters, a war on the rights of your daughters.
We cannot stay silent. Thank you.