Saul Tello Jr. apologized to the audience before giving his speech -- not for what he was about to say, but because he chose to say it in Spanish.
The Orestimba High School valedictorian's choice drew heated comments from locals in Newman, then sparked a national controversy.
Fox TV commentator Bill O'Reilly used the May 31 incident as an example of "this whole self-esteem craziness" in schools.
"In California, a high school valedictorian, very smart kid, told the principal of the Orestimba High School that he wants to give his speech in Spanish. The principal said, 'Sure, go right ahead,' " O'Reilly said in his introduction last week to an episode advocating education reform.
A West Side Index editorial said school administrators should have stopped it. Index publisher Bill Mattos went on to say the foundation supporting Orestimba High scholarships "may demand graduation ceremonies follow a tradition that makes sense in our community."
But in a community where three in four students are Latino and roughly half of the children enter school as Spanish speakers, Tello's decision did make sense, said some of the 200-plus comments on the editorial.
Outcry over English
Such comments, however, were in the minority. Far more said the nation's official language is English and that those who don't agree should go back where they came from.
At his modest Crows Landing home Monday, Tello said he's heard only positive comments from people he knows and thinks the controversy is mainly media-driven.
Tello, a soft-spoken teen with a whisper of a beard, earned the valedictorian spot with the highest grades in his 173-member graduating class -- "4.2-something," as best he could remember, he said. He's headed to San Diego State University, where he plans to pursue a political science major and maybe law school.
He said he knew early on he wanted his parents to hear his speech and understand every word.
"I wanted to make them proud," Tello said.
He asked to read his five-minute speech in both languages but was told that with such a large graduating class, there wasn't time, he said.
The Newman-Crows Landing school board discussed the issue last week. Assistant Superintendent Jack Mayer said changes will be in place before next year's ceremony.
He said the district understands those who feel the speech was disrespectful to English speakers. But, he added, "On the other hand, even if the district directed the student to do the speech in English, free-speech rights protect the student's right to do the speech in Spanish."
Tello said he thought carefully about what he wanted to say to fellow graduates.
"I didn't want to do a regular speech, like how I was going to miss everybody," he said. He chose three themes to cover: be a boss, hold on to your dreams and learn from history.
The first is a friend's favorite saying. Tello said it meant, "We should be the boss of whatever we set out to do. We should be the best of the best."
In the speech, Tello said: "When you are the boss, you stand for something worthwhile in whatever you do; you are a leader. ... And tonight as we graduate, we stand for something important: a successful high school education. Let this not be the last time we will accomplish something of value. In all that we do from this point forward, let us strive for excellence. We must 'Be like a boss.' "
Bee education reporter Nan Austin can be reached at email@example.com or (209) 578-2339.