Hillary Clinton called her brave. Jennifer Aniston dubbed her a hero. She was interviewed by CNN, the Washington Post, People, Teen Vogue, BuzzFeed, Nightline and NBC’s Today Show. Her story was covered by NPR, Guardian, Daily Beast, ABC’s The View and the New York Times. Tiny Pricks Project, a group of Canadian embroiderers, has stitched her words on linen hand towels.
So, what’s it like to go from Lake Highlands High School valedictorian to worldwide media marvel?
“The experience has been very fast and very hectic, with a lot coming at me at once,” says Paxton Smith. “It’s been like a roller coaster, but it’s been great. I’m glad the message is getting so much traction and that it’s bringing reproductive rights and women’s healthcare to the forefront.”
After Smith switched her pre-approved valedictory address to a pro-choice message which blew up on social media, she received hundreds of messages, including some delivered to her home. Some were congratulatory. Others, not-so-much.
“I like the positive ones. A lot of people found a way to contact me to tell me about their personal experience with abortion or how they worry that a lack of reproductive rights will affect one of their family members – especially their children. It’s very inspiring to me, and it makes me glad I said what I said. They felt heard, and it gave them a voice.
“The worst messages are typically the worst-composed, so it can be difficult to take those seriously. A lot of them define femininity and what it means to be a woman, and they say it’s a woman’s job to have children. They say that’s the best way to contribute to society. Those are concerning.”
Since commencement May 30, Smith says fielding media requests from all over the world has become a full-time job. She hasn’t found time to watch all the video clips and read all the articles written about her speech, but she tries to learn something from each one she sees.
“I think, okay, maybe I should frame that differently next time. Maybe I should put some thought into how to answer that better to reflect what I think.”
Smith, who’ll be attending the University of Texas in the fall, has also been contacted by a few elected officials to endorse their campaigns. She’s not ready to do that yet, but she did speak at a pro-choice rally on the steps of the capitol in Austin.
“I’m trying to be careful about promoting politicians. I want to be sure my message comes across.”
Of course, many who heard Smith’s speech at graduation in Wildcat Stadium or saw it on YouTube disagree with her opinions. Ilona Bistrian, a December 2020 graduate of LHHS, wrote a strong rebuttal for LiveAction.org.
“There is a war on our bodies,” wrote Bistrian, echoing a theme in Smith’s speech, “our bodies, precious and strong vessels that were given the power to produce life. There is nothing more beautiful than to bring a new human into the world. There is nothing more empowering than to raise and influence the next generation of history makers. And that ability is being warred on, in an attempt to degrade it to nothing, to tear it down to the status of a disease. There is a war on our human rights. Or more specifically, the right to life. Life – the first, foundational right from where all rights stem from.”