Peyton Goddard, Valedictorian June 5, 2002
For Peyton and family, living in San Diego for many decades has been a non-stop southern California wonder. No winter snow shovels needed at our house and, come spring, we know that the graduation season will soon be in full bloom because the wisteria that was winter bare one week seemingly explodes overnight into deep bluish-purple waterfalls. Soon graduation season will be upon us and equally soon the valedictorians will have honed their academic skills and practiced their speeches, saying farewell to their school while imparting sentiments of gratitude or calls to action.
In early spring of 2002, the Dean of Cuyamaca Community College informed fourth year student and my beloved daughter Peyton that her academic accomplishments (never before achieved in the U.S. by a non-verbal, autistic person) qualified her as the class valedictorian. “Congratulations!” It was a complete surprise to our family (possibly not to Peyton) to learn that despite her challenges, out of the entire class she had the most credits and the highest GPA. Yet as the Dean concluded her visit, she asked Peyton to submit the final draft of her speech a week before graduation for the administration’s approval. Was this reasonable request a new policy this year, my wife and I wondered? We had all heard the valedictorian speech the previous year, in which the young man stated in his speech, “My parents tell me that when I was a little baby, I used to turn my stroller upside down and continuously spin the wheels. (Loud audience laughter.) My dad used to think I was autistic because of this. (Loud audience laughter.) But somehow, because I’m standing up here today, I don’t think that’s really true. (Loud audience laughter.)”
Perhaps at that time few could have imagined that Peyton would be the next valedictorian, as she faced her heaviest academic load yet in her upcoming final year. But she was, and she spent 42 hours writing it while taking her finals. Peyton asked her best friend from childhood, Hollyn, to read her remarkable speech for her at the ceremony.
Surprisingly the administration first requested that only Hollyn (not Peyton) stand at the podium during the valedictorian speech. They asked Peyton to sit in the audience and simply stand when she was introduced. In a final appeal on the very morning of the graduation ceremony, Peyton told the new college President that she was up to the task and that it was important for her to be seen at the podium so that all could understand the support that went into her achieving such an award. Peyton’s demonstration of respect and humility turned the tide and won the administration’s approval to stand tall at the podium.
So, the two young women, stood side by side, holding hands and then Hollyn, after a flawless reading, eased behind Peyton at the podium and let the standing ovation be given solely to the deserving valedictorian. All eyes were focused on Peyton and none showed pity, just pride and admiration. Tears of joy were a plenty. Her time, now given to history, ended with Pey’s unbowed head, full eye-contact with her audience, and the slightest of smiles. Above the din, one classmate hollered, “We love you Peyton!”
Most often, valedictorian speeches are given once and then carefully shelved with the other memorabilia and memories, but it seems to this proud dad that Peyton’s speechwas written to be timeless …. Its simplicity and wisdom deserve to live on in history. Peyton had written a speech that reached out in a “call to action” and chose not to include a “farewell.” Her speech emphasized the importance of neverending trust and love.
The Peyton Goddard Scholarship Foundation
In her graduation announcement, Peyton requested no gifts. Instead, she suggested donations to an annual scholarship to be set up in her name to help students “similar to her.”
“I liking not presents for myself, but wish quest
to establish a scholarship for future students similar
to myself to experience as I have the wisdom of Cuyamaca College.”
By July, 2002 contributions had risen above $5,000 and were being held by the College under the Peyton Goddard Scholarship Foundation Fund. This money was designated by Peyton to be a single $500.00 annual scholarship awarded in the Spring to the successful applicant. The award required that the applicant read Peyton’s valedictorian speech and write a one-page essay based on Peyton’s question:
“If you were wise enough to changer of our world be, what would you dearly,
carefully, effectively and realistically initiate and why?”
This scholarship fund ensures that Peyton’s wisdom imparted in her speech will live on. As the applicant reads the speech it is hoped that the importance of global harmony is also supported in the Cuyamaca College community; each of us plays a critical role in creating paths to peace. Peyton asks the applicants to think about how to make the world a better place, how they can impact the world through their positive actions and encouraging the inclusion of all people in order to achieve a lasting peace. The core message from her speech still applies today and most certainly into the future. Peyton wrote about 9/11 and Iraq but the same messages apply to today’s circumstances in North Korea or the Middle East. Her message of unity, inclusion and universal love continues to ring out in her ongoing efforts as an advocate and writer. Her memoir I Am Intelligent was released on June 5, 2012, ten years to the day of her graduation. In it she tells the story of her journey, the experiences that etched and forged her wisdom, strength and personhood–her understanding of unity and oneness in all creation. As she says, “All people are vastly valuable. Treasure all because great is each.”