“BELIEVE…Believe in yourself, Class of 2021. Each and every one of you is enough,” were the inspiring words of Eastern Regional High School’s valedictorian Bryce Dershem.

Those words were almost not heard, and would have left an entire graduating class and their families robbed of a powerful speech that bonded them their final time together, that validated their experiences and memories dealing with a harrowing year due to the pandemic.

Just as Texan high school valedictorian Paxton Smith defied her Highlands Park High School and gave a powerful speech about protecting reproductive rights, so too did Eastern Regional High School’s valedictorian Bryce Dershem speak up about being queer, a survivor of anorexia and mental health issues, and urged his classmates to believe in themselves and one another.

Last Thursday, in New Jersey, Dershem gave a speech about coming out, navigating his queer identity, his struggle with anorexia, and the importance of mental health before being cut off.

Forty-five seconds into his speech, after congratulating his fellow classmates, he said,“After I came out as queer freshman year, I felt so alone. I didn’t know who to turn to,” when his microphone was abruptly cut off.

“As I was saying,” he continued, as the crowd cheered him on, “we brand high school as four years of self-discovery but few of us know where to begin.”

The school had also asked he not wear his Pride flag over his gown — which he also did not comply with.

Bryce Dershem is not just a survivor, he is a role model for strength, courage, and embracing one’s own self. As his journey shows: it is not easy. And even when you are at the top, at the podium, others will want to silence you from their own fears and places of privilege. But as the standing ovation and the virality of the video show, as Bryce himself said: you are not alone.

The journey to find your voice, to be yourself will be your own, but you will not be be alone.

Below is the video and transcript.

After I came out as queer freshman year, I felt so alone. I didn’t know who to turn to…

[claps and cheers: “Let him finish!”]

As I was saying, we brand high school as four years of self-discovery but few of us even know where to begin.

After I came out as queer freshman year, I felt so alone. I didn’t know who to turn to for support, for guidance, for a hug. Every day at school I outwardly smiled, while inwardly questioning how we were supposed to link the different facets of our identities. Brother, sister, queen, queer lover, human being.

Even though my family, my friends, and so many amazing Eastern faculty believed in me, I needed to accept the unapologetic version of myself, for myself. We all do. But, before we can even start down this road of self-discovery, we got to make sure we are doing okay and can handle the drive — especially when it comes to mental health.

As I struggled with my identity, I also began to struggle more and more with mental illness, which only worsened with the coronavirus pandemic. Beginning September of senior year, I spent six months in treatment for anorexia. For so long I tried to bend and break and shrink to society’s expectations. There are times when it’s hard to know if we’ll make it down the road at all.

As you walk beyond the halls of 1401 Laurel Oak Road, I would like to share what I think is the most important thing I have learned at Eastern: you are not alone in your fight. With the belief of those around you, you never have to suffer in silence. If you have struggled, or will struggle, I believe you, and I hope you will believe others too. From a formerly suicidal, formerly anorexic queer, the list goes on for me and for all of us.

Believe me that one person’s belief can save a life. With the belief of the Susan Pomerantz’s, the Moni Goldthorpe’s, the Beth Friedner’s, the Crystal Bateman’s and Megan Medith’s of the world, I am standing with you all today. I am a fighter and today, I am a survivor.

[claps fo support as he falter]

And gosh, I am so happy and so proud to be standing with you all today: sun on my face, creating this final memory with you all, and a life worth living. Whether you are going off to college, enlisting in the military, joining the workforce, I hope you believe in how much you had to overcome just to be here today. It’s incredible and no simple feat.

Part of our identity, our year, our struggle is 2021. We’re still here though. We adapted to something we never thought possible. You are fighters. You are survivors. Today I would like to recognize the community that we have created together, made of Powder Puff games and Spirit Week walls, of smiles in hallways, and endless six minute talks; of your stories, the ones that inspire me and will stick with me long after we have left this field.

If I leave you with anything today, let it be belief. Whether it be in your best friend, your child, a student, or simply yourself: Believe. While we may we may wish to push aside our high school years for the next chapters in our lives, I hope you believe in the strength it took to survive these past few years. Take this strength and hope from the past to honor where we are in the present, to believe in what we have to look forward to in the future. Believe one another. Believe in the reality of mental illness. Believe regardless of stereotypes and stigma.

Buddha said, you yourself, as much as anybody in the entire universe, deserve your own love and support. Believe in yourself, Class of 2021. Each and every one of you is enough. Each and every one of you can change this world.

Thank you and congratulations!