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Originally published June 13, 2013 at 8:24 PM | Page modified June 14, 2013 at 1:57 PM

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Corrected version

Author Guterson heckled for gloomy speech at Roosevelt graduation

Award-winning author David Guterson’s speech at the Roosevelt High School graduation Wednesday was unorthodox, with frequent references to death and a gloomy tone that had a few audience members heckling him.

Seattle Times education reporter

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High-school graduation speeches are often upbeat confections that melt from students’ memories before they finish crossing the stage to claim their diplomas.

The speech that author David Guterson gave Wednesday at Seattle’s Roosevelt High already has lasted longer than that.

Students and parents are still talking about the 25-minute address Guterson gave Wednesday evening, which upset some members of the audience so much that they heckled Guterson from the stands at Memorial Stadium, and tried to cut his speech short by clapping before he was done.

“It certainly was an intelligent talk, but the overall tone was very, very negative,” said parent Diana Brement.

Some thought Guterson’s message was that students would be unlikely to ever find happiness.

“He had very odd references,” said senior Dexter Tang. “He referenced marijuana use for one. He talked a lot about his death. ... Something along the lines of metaphorical death. About dying inside.”

The hecklers — a handful of parents and one student — yelled at Guterson to be more positive, to stop speaking, to stop ruining the graduation.

But most students listened respectfully and some liked the speech, Brement said.

Principal Brian Vance and some parents also thought it was fine, saying that, while dark at times, Guterson challenged students to be thoughtful about how they spend their lives.

“The message was about waking up and reflecting on your life and trying to avoid the distractions that we all have in our lives, and take the opportunity to think about what you want to accomplish,” Vance said.

But Vance and others agreed the speech was far from uplifting.

After Guterson finished, a student who was preparing to play the song “Lean on Me,” on the guitar, looked down from the stage at his fellow classmates and said, “Let’s all just bring each other back up.”

Guterson, 57, graduated from Roosevelt High in 1974. He was a high-school English teacher before he wrote “Snow Falling on Cedars,” a novel that has sold millions of copies.

A committee of parents and students invited him to speak.

Guterson couldn’t be reached for comment.

Vance said he expected to receive a lot of emails from parents Thursday, but he didn’t get that many. Some parents, he said, appreciated that Guterson talked to the students “like adults and had them start to think about some adult issues.”

School Board member Harium Martin-Morris, who also attended the ceremony, said he also thought Guterson’s speech had good wisdom embedded in it, although “He did mention death a whole lot and, at a high-school graduation, that’s probably not something people are used to.”

Vance said he wasn’t able to talk with Guterson afterward, but plans to thank him for coming and to ask him “what he was trying to accomplish and whether that was on target with what happened or not.”

The Stranger has the full text of Guterson’s speech on its blog, the Slog.

Linda Shaw: 206-464-2359 or lshaw@seattletimes.com. On Twitter @LShawST

Information in this story, originally published June 13, 2013, was corrected June 14, 2013. A previous version of this story gave an incorrect age for David Guterson.

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