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The “H” word

Who would have thought that the word “hell” would garner so much controversy and media attention outside of its usual religious context, but that is exactly what this four-letter word has ignited via the current debate over its use in a high school graduation speech. “How the hell should I know?” is how former Prague High School senior Kaitlin Nootbaar used the “H” word during her valedictorian graduation speech. The idea to insert this line into her speech was inspired by a graduation scene from Twilight saga series Eclipse movie. In this scene, the character is delivering a graduation speech in which she says “How the hell should I know?” in response to the inquiries she’s received regarding what she’d like to pursue in the future. For Nootbaar, the line from this blockbuster film perfectly captures the struggle she and many of her classmates have, or are, going through with respect to their future career goals. It was this desire to connect with her peers, Kaitlin’s mother asserts, that led Kaitlin to use this particular line from the Eclipse movie. The laughter that followed Kaitlin’s use of that line in her graduation speech, her father adds, demonstrates the ease with which the word hell was accepted in that forum. Neither Kaitlin nor her family were approached following the conclusion of the graduation ceremony with complaints over the use of the word hell during her speech, leading Kaitlin and her family to believe there was no issue. However, when Kaitlin and her father went to the high school to inquiry as to why she had not yet received her diploma in the mail, they were met by the schools principal who, in return for her diploma, demanded that Kaitlin apologize for her use of the word hell in her speech.

Located in a small town of little over 2000 residents in Oklahoma, the word “hell” is considered by some to be on the same level as  a variety of the most recognized four-letter swear words.  This is certainly the case for Prague High School Principal David Smith. With the support of the school administration, Principal Smith has declared that Kaitlin will not receive her high school diploma from the school until she issues an apology for her use of the word hell in  her graduation speech. News of the schools refusal to issue Kaitlin’s high school diploma has stirred an outrage over what some deem to be a violation of Kaitlin’s free speech rights. Others have focused the debate on whether the word hell is a swear word. In almost all sides of the debate, the fact that the schools mascot (Red Devil) is the chief representation for the word hell is ironical at best. For me, this is not a debate about free speech, nor is it a referendum regarding what constitutes a swear word, but rather the obligation to follow through with an agreement. Kaitlin had to submit a copy of her graduation speech to school officials for approval. In the graduation speech that Kaitlin submitted to school officials for approval, the word “heck” was used instead of “hell.” Moments before she was set to deliver her graduation speech, Kaitlin decided to substitute the word “hell” for the “heck.” It is not entirely clear to me why at the last-minute Kaitlin chose to insert the word hell into her speech, nevertheless, in doing so Kaitlin deliberately set on a course to disavow the agreement she made with the school to deliver the speech they approved.

Delivering a valedictorian speech at a graduation ceremony is not a right, it is a privilege that is bestowed upon academically deserving students that typically come administrative strings attached. At Prague High School, part of the strings attached include submitting ones speech to school officials for approval. The very act of submitting ones speech for approval suggest the possibility that ones words may be edited. Kaitlin should have assumed the understanding and responsibility that came along with agreeing to recite the speech she submitted for approval. Kaitlin sidelined school officials by deviating from the speech it was understood she’d give at the graduation ceremony. Whether one agrees with the schools assessment that hell is a swear word (I don’t), or with the schools tactic of withholding Kaitlin’s diploma (I don’t), the bottom line is that Kaitlin agreed to abide by terms set forth by the school, terms that she ultimately chose to toss aside.