SPRING HILL — When Jem Lugo sat down to write her valedictory graduation speech, the Springstead High School senior tried to keep it real for her peers in the Class of 2009.
Lugo, an 18-year-old Spring Hill resident bound for Harvard University, had read speeches on the Internet and watched others on YouTube. The senior class president and yearbook editor was struck by their formulaic sameness — same jokes, same quotes, same inspirational messages.
The student who once stood before the Hernando County School Board to oppose a proposed dress code for high school students decided to give a speech that would be, as she describes it, "worth hearing."
But Lugo, who earned an unweighted 3.98 grade-point average, says she made it much too real for school officials who work with valedictorians each year to ensure their graduation speeches are appropriate. Lugo says Springstead principal Susan Duval rejected the address and told her to start over. Lugo says that the senior class sponsor, who read the speech first, used the word "appalled."
On Thursday, Springstead's graduation day, Lugo read another, shorter speech that did garner approval.
But it isn't Lugo's, she told the St. Petersburg Times in a letter this week.
"Graduation is no longer about the students at all. It's about the school, proudly presenting another fine batch of perfectly acceptable programmed graduates to the rest of the community," she wrote. The new speech, she added, "is not me."
This spring Lugo was one of four Tampa Bay area seniors awarded Barnes Scholarships by the nonprofit, philanthropic arm of the Times, which targets young people who have overcome obstacles, excelled academically and set big goals for the future. The address she crafted for graduation night was not the standard commencement fare.
The slangy speech is full of blunt observations, pop culture references and what she says are affectionate digs at classmates.
"Nobody in speeches ever tells you what you actually need to know in life," she wrote. "I'm going to remind you of some basic concepts you can actually apply to your life. Crazy, right?"
First, she says, "Get money."
"Do something with your life where you're able to have a steady, reliable source of income. Gamers, I'm sorry, but farming for gold in (video game) World of Warcraft is not considered a reliable or socially acceptable source of income."
Lugo included a common theme from other speeches, but in a conversational way.
"I'm not going to put on an act and tell you your future's going to be peachy," she wrote. "No, life is gonna suck sometimes. Believe me, you're gonna need that one thing in your life that can always brighten your day, whether it's a significant other, a dog, a lava lamp, or the blankie you've had since you were a baby."
The speech is full of other practical lessons and school pride, Lugo says. Say please and thank you. Keep in touch with high school friends. Don't become a workaholic. Stand for something. Be proud of your status as a Springstead grad.
"If you ever achieve any sort or fame or acclaim in your life, don't mess it up," she wrote. "Think Michael Phelps and Britney Spears."
According to Lugo, principal Duval told her she understood her aim for originality but warned the speech might offend some.
In Hernando County, graduation speeches are reviewed on the school level by administrators. The appropriateness of the speech is left to the discretion of principals, said superintendent Wayne Alexander.
It's the same in Pinellas, Pasco and Hillsborough counties, officials in those districts said Thursday. They said district-level staffers can review graduation speeches if concerns are raised.
Alexander said he hadn't read Lugo's speech and didn't think that was necessary.
"I think the process that we have in place works," Alexander said "I trust the judgment of my principals."
Duval declined to comment Thursday. In 2007, she received a $1,500 fine and letter of reprimand to settle a state inquiry after she acknowledged plagiarizing material for graduation speeches she made in 2004 and 2005.
Lugo says she was given no guidance or previous examples when she was approached in February to pen the address. After the original graduation speech was rejected, she says, Duval conceded that she should have been given guidelines and examples to reference.
Lugo said her parents, Louis and Cathy Lugo, approved of her original speech. Friends suggested that she rebel and read it anyway. She said she would not do that.
"I'm brash and bold on paper, but I would never have the guts in real life to blatantly disrespect my higher-ups," she said.
Tony Marrero can be reached at email@example.com or (352) 848-1431.