"I feel like I haven't even had time to process what's actually happening. I'm just surprised and very happy about how far this speech has gotten. I think it's a really important topic that needs to be talked about more," Paxton Smith tells PEOPLE

By Diane Herbst
June 04, 2021 11:26 AM
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Paxton Smith, Lake Highlands High School valedictorian, poses for a photo, Wednesday, June 2, 2021, in Dallas
Paxton Smith
| Credit: Juan Figueroa/The Dallas Morning News via AP

As valedictorian of Lake Highlands High School in Dallas, Paxton Smith knew she needed to prepare a speech for commencement on May 30. As she was finishing an assignment for her psychology class, Smith couldn't stop thinking about Texas's new law that forbids abortions after six weeks, before many women know they are pregnant. The law also has no exception for cases of rape and incest.

"I couldn't stop thinking about [the law] and how much it upset me," she tells PEOPLE. "So I decided to start writing out my thoughts that I had about it. And in that moment I realized that is what I should talk about."

Written over two days in her bedroom and practiced in the mirror, in the shower, and at stoplights "so many times I couldn't tell you," the heartfelt speech — not the one approved by school administrators has since gone viral: One TikTok clip was viewed on Twitter  more than more than 6.7 million times as of Friday morning.

On Twitter, Hillary Clinton said "This took guts" while a staffer for former Democratic presidential primary candidate Beto O'Rourke of Texas asked Smith to speak at one of his summer events. 

"It's pretty shocking for me, because when I went up there and made the speech, I thought that the microphone would be cut off before I had the chance to finish," says the 18-year-old.

"That day I was not the happiest camper, I was kind of dreading giving the speech. And when I pulled the piece of paper out of my bra that I had the speech written down on, in that moment, I was just thinking, 'Okay, here we go.' "

"But oh, goodness, I feel like I haven't even had time to process what's actually happening. I'm just surprised and very happy about how far this speech has gotten. I think it's a really important topic that needs to be talked about more." 

In the moments after delivering the speech — met with cheers from classmates, parents in the audience and most staff members, a reaction that "shocked" Smith, who lives in a conservative area — not everyone was pleased.  

"When I got back to the stage, a couple of ladies pulled me aside. I have no idea what their role is with the school; they were helping run the event," Smith says. "And they seemed a bit upset and they told me that Highlands was holding my diploma, which was literally in my hand."

"So I don't know what they were planning to do. Like rip it out of my hand?" she continues.  "When I got home I was like, well, they're not getting it now."

Smith's defiance as school valedictorian has the full support of her family. "Paxton has always been the person who when she sees an injustice, she'll speak up," Smith's proud father, Russell Smith, tells PEOPLE. "She has always been that person, very exceptionally strong of character, exceptionally strong of mind and will."

Paxton Smith
Paxton Smith
| Credit: Courtesy Paxton Smith
Russell, Eunice, Paxton, & Mason Smith
Paxton with her father, Russell, step-mom Eunice, and brother, Mason
| Credit: Russell Smith
Paxton with Genesis (DCI)
Paxton Smith playing trumpet
| Credit: Genesis

Paxton shared the speech with Russell and her step-mom, Eunice, with whom she lives, about a week before the commencement. "I was sworn to secrecy," he says.

Russell was also fearful about the controversy the words could ignite. "As a father, I was most assuredly concerned," he says. "But I also knew how important this was to her. We would have rallied around her no matter what."

This unwavering family support has enabled Paxton to embrace a wide array of passions. "It's one of those things that's a never-ending series of raised eyebrows," says Russell.

In addition to her self-motivated academic achievements, she is a singer with hopes to perform in Austin once she starts college there at the University of Texas, expecting to major in either music business or recording technology.  As a trumpet player, Paxton toured with a competitive marching band, and joined the Boy Scouts once it allowed girls. 

"Since I was very young I thought it was just the coolest thing that they went out and did camping and whittled and tied knots," she says. "My sophomore year, they opened it up to girls and I jumped at the opportunity."

Paxton Smith
Credit: Christine Knefley

At the end of the month, Paxton begins a music class through Boston's renowned Berklee College of Music, and is considering offers of summer opportunities that have flooded in since her speech.

"Paxton's always been a person who strives for the extraordinary," says Russell, who works in the pharmaceutical industry. "She says, 'I'm doing this.' And all I can do is say, 'Okay, if you believe strongly in it, let's do what we got to do' and she runs with it."