This year, the Dallas, Texas school district hosted the usual meeting for teachers to kick off the school year. The unconventional choice for convocation speaker was Dalton Sherman, a 5th grade student in the district. His speech, I Believe in Me, Do You? was given to the 17,500 teachers in attendance. It was a huge hit, won him a standing ovation and national acclaim. This video is making the rounds of education blogs (some a little over the top breathless) and being played in lots of opening day staff meetings. The YouTube version has had over 34,000 views so far. I have no doubt we’ll be seeing this in numerous keynotes this year.
In the speech, Dalton asks Dallas teachers to believe in him and all students, “…what we need from you is to believe that we can reach our highest potential.” He asks that the teachers believe in their colleagues too, “…trust them and lean on them when times get tough – and we all know, we kids can sometimes make it tough.” (Full text of the speech.)
It’s a good speech, but it’s the performance that takes it to the next level.
Dalton won his first oratory contest in the first grade, and his rightly proud parents say his talents are “a gift.” But Dalton works hard at his craft and has earned his acclaim. He’s given speeches at churches and events all over Dallas. He enters (and wins) contests. He practices. For this speech, Dallas ISD contacted his family in June with the invitation. They wrote the speech for him, and he practiced three times a week all summer long, working on his timing and performance to turn the words into a powerful, inspirational message.
He’s great, isn’t he? But wait…. there’s more to think about here.
Like… Is it cynical to put words like “believe in me” in this child’s mouth, no matter how admirable the performance? This is what some anonymous adult in charge wanted other adult underlings to hear, and they used the passionate talent of a youth to deliver the message. They knew that the message would better reach its target that way. Does it matter that it’s a “good” message? Is it manipulation or simply smart marketing?
We talk about “student voice” all the time, and this obviously is NOT an example of student voice. There is not even the pretense here that the message came from a student, although the performer was young and talented. That’s a tough distinction to puzzle out, because praise flows easily to students who deliver adult messages and play by adult rules. It’s easy to believe in them, because they validate what we believe about ourselves.
But what about the “other ones”. You know the ones, the students who don’t toe the line, the ones who have checked out. The ones who deliver uncomfortable messages in voices at times eloquent and at times spectacularly clumsy or even crude. The ones who challenge the world and the ones who seem not to believe in themselves. Do we listen when the message isn’t so pleasantly packaged, isn’t so clear, isn’t so crafted? Do we believe in them too?