Before Trevor Ladner could celebrate his move from Poplarville to Boston, he wanted to thank three Hancock High teachers who’d helped him find his place at Harvard University.
“These women transcend their roles as educators to provide real-life skills and to celebrate diversity in their classrooms,” he said in his commencement speech at Hancock High School. “They have changed their students so that their students may change the world.”
Amanda Pidgeon knew minds were going to be blown at Brett Favre Field on May 19 when Trevor Ladner delivered his salutatorian speech, but she had no idea her former student’s words would evoke tears and makeup smears.
Pidgeon, who teaches advanced placement English at Hancock, assigned all of her students nicknames from “The Breakfast Club” on their first day of class.
“I was ‘The Revolutionary,’” Ladner said in an interview two days before his speech to thousands packed into bleachers at the football stadium. “Just her believing in me, letting me know I am able to change the world, that meant so much to me.”
In his speech, Ladner thanked Pidgeon for assuring him he could in fact be revolutionary. He also had to mention the thoughtful graduation gift she gave him.
“Mrs. Pidgeon has been one of my loudest champions throughout my high school career, and I could not be where I am today without her support and generous donations to my 4-foot-tall makeup case.”
Ladner said Pidgeon encouraged him to be himself and supported his drag artistry and Miss Annie Thang.
“She’s just so accepting of diversity and she really wants to celebrate diversity in her classroom,” he said.
Pidgeon said she felt honored to be mentioned in Ladner’s speech, and to her, it was more than just a shout-out.
“I felt honored to have touched a life, to have inspired a soul,” she said. “My job encompasses much more than just conveying information to my students. I became a teacher to make sure that high school kids understood that they are the future of the world and have the capability to make it better or even the best it’s ever been.
“Hearing what Trevor said reinforced that I am right where I need to be in my career.”
‘The happiest person’
There was another set of watery eyes in the faculty section at graduation when Kelley McKnight heard Ladner say her name.
“Mrs. McKnight has taught history in a way that is both honest and relevant,” he told the class of 2016. “Through her class, I have not only been inspired to be an activist on a more substantial level, but I have also learned to appreciate the small joys in everyday life.”
McKnight taught Ladner in eleventh grade, and he said she is the “happiest person I’ve ever met in my life.”
McKnight, who now teaches at Hancock County Vo-Tech, became emotional before, during and after the ceremony, when she embraced Ladner on the football field.
Sarah Bailey, who approves the valedictorian’s and salutatorian’s speeches, asked Ladner to sign a copy of his speech for her.
“I always tell my therapist that I have another therapist at school — Mrs. Bailey,” Ladner said. “She always knows what to say to calm me down, put me on the right path or make me think logically when I’m angered or emotional.”
Bailey, who teaches creative writing, helped Ladner become better at putting words on paper, he said.
“I could not have applied to all of the colleges I did without her help.”
After graduation, McKnight said she realized during Ladner’s speech she had taught not only him but also Pidgeon and Bailey, when they were students.
The revolution, she said, “has come full circle.”