COVID-19 upended their graduation plans. Listen to speeches from Memphis valedictorians.

Caroline Bauman, Chalkbeat Tennessee

Video editing by Sam Park

COVID-19 upended their graduation plans. Listen to speeches from Memphis valedictorians was originally published by Chalkbeat, a nonprofit news organization covering public education. Sign up for their newsletters here: ckbe.at/newsletters.


Nadia Wallace was supposed to walk across a graduation stage on Saturday — a long-awaited moment to be made even sweeter by the fact she is the valedictorian and was selected to give the commencement speech at her Memphis high school.

But Wallace — whose school is doing a “drive-through” graduation later this month — won’t have a stage upon which to deliver her speech. And for other seniors around the nation and world, graduation looks soberingly different this year. In an attempt to curb the spread of the coronavirus, districts, including Shelby County Schools, ended in-person learning earlier this spring and subsequently canceled or postponed graduation ceremonies. (Some schools, such as the one Wallace attended, are allowing students to drive by and pick up their diplomas during socially distanced graduation events that lack the pomp and circumstance of a traditional commencement.)

Chalkbeat Tennessee wanted to give valedictorians like Wallace a virtual stage to share their speeches with the world. This project features six students across Memphis who were named the highest academic achiever in their respective classes.

“Anything that showcases our seniors and lets them know that they are just as special as the previous classes will help,” said Wallace, who attended Memphis Business Academy High School. “Overall, a lot of the seniors of 2020 just feel like their hard work will go unnoticed and that their year was completely ruined, yet they are still ways to try and make up for it as best as possible.”


Related: Memphis plans for in-person graduation ceremonies in July


Despite the challenges facing the class of 2020, these valedictorians overwhelmingly encouraged their peers to be proud of their accomplishments and lean into optimism about the future.

“We have made our parents and families so proud, and we should be proud of ourselves for reaching this milestone in our lives,” said Cornelius Meeks, the valedictorian of Memphis’ Mitchell High School, said in his speech. “Although we did not complete our senior year the way we wanted to, we did it.”

Here are speeches from Memphis’ class of 2020. Enjoy, and let us know what you think of this project. We’re listening at community@chalkbeat.org.

Chalkbeat compiled six valedictorian speeches into one video.

Cornelius Meeks, valedictorian at Mitchell High School

Nadia Wallace, valedictorian at Memphis Business Academy High School

TaVonte Campbell, valedictorian at KIPP Memphis Collegiate High School

Maxine Scott, valedictorian at the adult high school called The Excel Center

Tyler Finley, valedictorian at East High School

Johanna Olvera, valedictorian at Freedom Preparatory Academy


Reporter Laura Faith Kebede contributed to this project.

Chalkbeat is a nonprofit news site covering educational change in public schools.

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