An outspoken 18-year-old Lodi, N.J. high school valedictorian who is bound for Harvard with a 4.3032 grade-point average, has been banned from giving the valedictorian speech at his high school’s commencement tomorrow night for being too outspoken in defending a classmate who was being mistreated by a substitute teacher.
School officials notified Solanski earlier this month that he wouldn’t be giving the valedictorian address due to prior disciplinary issues, including talking back to a substitute teacher who he said was rude to a fellow student. Solanki said the principal told him it was tradition, not policy, to have the No. 1-ranking student address his peers.
When mass emails, letters, and student protests failed to persuade the school officials to change their “policy”, Solanki out his guidance counselor to help him mediate the dispute.
“I walked into the guidance office and said, ‘I’d like to resolve this peacefully,’” said Solanski. “I guess she took it as an ultimatum or an ‘or else’ statement. Her official words were, I threatened her.”
According to NBC 4 New York, “Solanski passed a school-ordered psychiatric evaluation and returned to school to find the superintendent waiting.
“’He decided that regardless of being cleared by my mental evaluation, my alleged threat deserved a five-day suspension,” which runs right through graduation, he said.
School officials didn’t return NBC 4 New York’s calls for comment Friday, and Principal Frank D’Amico has declined comment in the past, saying he couldn’t discuss student issues.
Solanki told NBC, “I guess they were afraid I’d use the speech to try to get back to them, further my personal agenda, but they never took the time to look at the speech. They would see that I’m very aware that the speech at graduation is not the time to do that.”
Devan’s father passed away eight months ago and Devan’s mother, Nayana, said the family even delayed their trip to India to spread her husband’s ashes, so they could attend Devan’s graduation.
“Solanki’s sharp tongue managed to make him some enemies during his few short years at Lodi High School. And as I see it, it’s plain that administration and faculty are using the last month of Solanki’s time as a student to teach him a lesson. Whatever the ‘lesson’ is supposed to be, here, it’s an awful one to teach a child. It isn’t right, it isn’t fair; above all, it’s petty and vindictive.”
Speaking truth to power is a dangerous occupation. I did it myself as young as four years old. At five, I threw my soda at a bigger girl who was teasing myself and another child for wearing hand-me-down clothes. My kindergarten teacher slapped me for criticizing her teeth, after she told me I had to be more lady-like, like the other little girls who flapped their little wings, lavishing her with praise to get her attention and approbation. In the first grade, I wrestled my best friend to the ground when she tried to shoplift some item in a pharmacy. She later “unfriended” me and after that, I was just as willing not to have any more to do with her than she with me.
In high school, my projects were always about the progress of Communism in our schools. I urged my Junior English classmates to beware of the “gatekeepers” of publishing, who made the decisions on how the news, school textbooks, and magazines would be skewed. I participated in the American History Revolution of 1976, protesting the Communist teachings of our U.S. History teacher (who was actually angling to have the next level of history – World History – made mandatory for all students, so he could legitimately teach students the “glories of Communism.”
I stormed out of a college philosophy class whose professor insisted that we admit that Jesus Christ was a fraud. Slamming the door, I marched directly to the Registrar’s office and dropped his class. I was denounced by another professor for refusing to cheat on a test. Out in one of the college parking lot, I urged a girl who was being beaten up by her boyfriend to get out of his car. He ordered me to leave them alone and drove off.
Having thus embarked upon my career of provocateur, I speedily made great advancements. In my very first working world blunder, I dared to tell a superior that he used a word incorrectly. A shocked hush fell over the office and the enraged executive stormed into his office, raging at the notion that a 24 year-old had the nerve to tell him how to write.
At my next job, when I told some magazine advertising executives that one day they would have portable computers like briefcases, I wasn’t fired but merely laughed at. But the magazine had a changeover in management and the magazine’s very nice advertising manager was peremptorily fired for telling its new publishers that notwithstanding the fact that the magazine dealt with psychology, the fact was that without the cigarette advertising, the magazine would have no money.
The next job, my superior was an absolute harridan. Co-workers shook at the thunder of her voice. I didn’t shake (surprisingly; perhaps because I was still so young) and she didn’t like that. During a bomb scare, she ordered me to get away from the window where I was talking with the cops five stories below to ask if they could bring me some lunch and get back to work: she wasn’t paying me to flirt with the bomb squad, she complained.
I hated her. I really hated her and wasn’t worry when my position was terminated. I went back to work in New Jersey. At my next job, I got to learn all about the oil industry. I spoke with tanker captains out at sea, met others who had been students of my grandfather (I came by my outspokenness honestly), and helped make oil maps out of coffee stains with my co-workers, who sang silly songs. Those were merry days.
My curiosity was indulged in my job in the security department, where I did filing work in the security library. I was allowed to read the recent Department of State security warnings and learned all about someone named “Osama Bin Laden.”
Trouble did come in the form of an oil spill. The company was not forthcoming in its regret for the accident (and that’s all it was, plain and simple – an accident; the media seemed to think that tanker captains were like CEOs: board room meetings, power lunches, and the occasional golf game. Uh – not.)
We all complained to our supervisor that the company’s public relations department – to which we were vaguely attached in some way – was making a huge mistake. You just can’t pretend you don’t see a vast oil spill in the middle of a bay in Alaska, we argued. We were told to sit down and be quiet. Ditto when an executive was later kidnapped and murdered.
By now in yet another department, I drew what’s known as a horary chart for a co-worker who was curious about metaphysics and the like. ‘This is where they’ll find him, after a period of time,” I told her. She asked if he’d be alive. I said one always tries to be positive in practicing astrology. But I said that if I’d interpreted the chart correctly, no.
Meanwhile, one of the secretaries warned me that I was being followed by company security. My co-worker said Security had taken too much of an interest in the chart and she erased it. I returned a few months later for another assignment and hailed as an astrological heroine for my accuracy. The whole company had heard about it.
The executive in question, by the by, had opposed a merger with another oil company, with a third company, a Russian company (whose call, ironically, I had received by mistake while working in a different department – the head secretary was furious with me; to this day, I have no idea why) lurking in the background. After the executive’s death, and a decent number of years, the merger went ahead. The executive said the company was already making enough money and that the merger would cost their jobs. Did his opposition cost him even more dearly?
After a return to college of one year to get my second bachelor’s in English (my first was in Communications), I went to work for an actually book publisher. As bad as the New York job was, this was truly the low-point of my career as a provocateur.
My co-workers were truly horrid. The very first day, I was invited by one to criticize another’s attire. I declined and never had lunch with them again. These girls, all at least 10 years younger than myself, were vicious, cruel, and prone to gossip. From the day I arrived till the day I left, I was harangued and mocked by this crew.
But I was determined not to leave without leaving a permanent, positive mark. Morale throughout the building was generally as low as mine. Customer service was a nightmare. When my young superior put me on customer service duty for failing to be as productive as was required, I put up with a lot of screaming customers. I made the mistake of pointing out to her that no customer who had accepted an invitation to place their listing in one of our directories wanted to learn from an ad on the back cover that their listings were being sold to third-party mass-mailing companies.
She scolded for speaking out of turn, for criticizing company policies and products, and for taking up her time. However, I was not going to be bested by her; at least not yet. Recently, I had come across an Elvis doll (in mint condition, I might add). She was an Elvis fan. I gave her the doll and watched her and her companions play with thing like the children they were.
Meanwhile, I had begun a campaign movement of sorts for a better newsletter for this particular building. The company had many locations and those employees received glossy, four-color magazines. This group, for all their harassment, received a meager, four-page black and white newsletter with no photos.
The company president realized they had a morale problem, even if my department manager didn’t. He began holding town hall meetings to allow the employees to ask questions and vent their frustrations. At every opportunity, I got hold of the microphone and made suggestions to improve the working conditions, including my campaign pitch for a newsletter.
By the time I left the company (escorted by a security guard), I was the heroine of the building. In fact, the day I left, I received a call from the company president asking to meet with me. Pity for the employees that shortly after I hung up with the president’s secretary, my computer shut itself down (always an ominous portent with which I was, by now, all too familiar), and the phone rang, this time from a very different department.
Back on the temporary secretary trail, I was assigned to one company where the manager would take out his frustrations on his cabinets. The entire company, however, used the copying machine as the office goat, stomping up to it, slamming its lid to make their copies, and then marching off again on their stiletto heels. My desk was nearby. I used to cringe every time someone came back there to make copies. The copy machine repairman was a frequent visitor.
I remarked to him that the employees were abusing the machine, which is basically an expensive camera inside a cabinet with a glass top, and that he should caution them about being too vigorous in their copying.
“I’m not telling them anything!” the young man replied. Guess their abuse kept his paychecks coming. So I told the president about the ineffectiveness of abusing a $10,000-plus. He turned purple with rage, pointed to the door, and told me to get out. As I left, I carried with me my next company’s secret.
Which I wisely kept. Approaching 40, wisdom was finally growing in. Still, injustice irked me and I simply couldn’t keep my mouth unopened when: employees on our floor were forbidden at times from using their own break area because it was a popular atrium for meetings and parties, even though the law clearly states that you cannot forbid employees the use of their break area; a consultant urged our sales representatives that the company was on its way out; I was read the riot act for 45 minutes for featuring a sales representative whom the company considered unproductive, even though he initially checked out; when corporate public relations came to tell us that dealings with a certain community organizing organization whom the president of the company had forbidden association with was kosher; and finally, when those same public relations people declared that the company’s former one big happy family culture was over and that it was no ‘no more Mr. Nice Guy.’
Yet, I never betrayed the company. The only person I told about my knowledge of the location of the new building (and the reasons for choosing it) was my boss, who urged me to say nothing of the matter. When we moved into the new building, I never told anyone at all what the vice president said about the fate of that building the very first day – and its employees. Why would I do something that cruel?
I said nothing when by accident, I learned the identity of an employee who died of mysterious illness and warned my co-worker, in the most careful terms possible, to contact the public relations representative handling the matter before publishing the deceased employee’s photo. I felt terrible for the employees whose lives and careers were about to be turned upside-down by a reorganization. My then-supervisor told me that the employees had two transfer options and if they chose the wrong one, well, they’d be looking for another job. I never spoke a word to anyone about it, though I was deeply concerned for my friends heading happily in that direction.
To the very last, my direct co-workers thought they would be spared. I knew otherwise. In other companies, departments like ours were cut to the bare bones. There were too many of us and we lived in the most expensive area with the highest salaries. Of course we were going to be laid off permanently.
Being the eldest of the group, I advised each one of them on the career road best calculated to ensure their future success. I was right on every count. Yet, ironically, I’ve failed to find a situation for myself. Caught between my success as a writer, the current dearth of writers (who generally must be in possession of a master’s degree in communications, and the reality of having to take a lower-paying situation as a secretary or administrative assistant, I have too much experience in the former and am lagging behind in the skills for the latter.
Young Mr. Solanki, once he has his Harvard degree in hand, shouldn’t have as checkered a career as I’ve had. Still, the world doesn’t love the truth, much as it clamors for it. The world does not love provocateurs. The villagers of Nazareth tried to throw Jesus off a cliff. Make sure save up a substantial amount of money before embarking wholesale upon this career path, young man.
Still, standing up for the weak, the unlucky, the unprotected has its rewards, if not in money, at least in integrity and a clear conscience. Once you get over the daunting prospect of being poor and unemployed, provoking cruel or abusive people can be quite a pleasure when you return home from your day’s work.
Commodities such as kindness, patience, friendliness, understanding, empathy, and forgiveness are in woefully short supply, particularly in our business environment. Cruelty, stupidity, stubbornness, short-sightedness, anger, retribution, ruthlessness, and mindless obedience have replaced them.
Clearly, these latter qualities are being inured at Lodi High School. A fine example they’re setting for a future authoritarian state where absolutism will be the rule. Respect for teachers will be replaced by suspicion and anxiety.
Had Mr. Solanki protected his classmate from the bullying of another classmate, he’d probably have been given some sort of certificate of merit tomorrow night. But because he spoke up to authority (twice), he’s been publicly cast down by the authorities from his rightful place.
This young man thought he was using the right words in applying the phrase, “resolve this peacefully.” But he was using the Leftist’s (and undoubtedly, these teachers and administrators are precisely that) words against them and they took immediate offense and went on the defensive, suspending the student for insubordination.
They were going to teach him a lesson is exactly right. He who owns the microphone owns the stage. Lodi High considers the commencement microphone and stage their property and they control the messages that are delivered upon it.
Evidently, the message of love and kindness, courage and valedictorian valor, will be delivered only by a messenger of their choosing, not a messenger of merit like Mr. Solanki.