He runs his speech through his head as he dashes between classes.
He practices in front of a mirror and even reads the speech into a tape recorder, then plays it back to dissect his performance.
Christopher McCroy, senior class president at Omaha North High, will deliver one of the school's two graduation speeches next week — and he wants to nail it.
“I am a representative of what North students are,'' he said. “I have to set (the bar) high.”
Students presenting graduation speeches face a challenge.
Not only is the audience big — North's commencement draws more than 3,000 people — most folks aren't there primarily for the speech. The main event for parents and proud uncles is hearing their graduate's name and watching the student snag a diploma on stage.
And the graduates — looking forward to parties, college or just getting out of that hot gown — can have a lot buzzing through their heads.
Still, the speeches are an important part of the ceremony. A good commencement address can draw in not just the graduates, but grandma as well, said Aaron Duncan, director of speech and debate in the communication studies department at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.
Commencement speakers have something on their side. Unlike a political speech, for example, graduation speeches don't need to change someone's mind or convince them of something, Duncan said.
But the graduation speaker, he said, still must connect with the audience.
Stories, anecdotes and other shared memories — particularly humorous ones — are a great way to pull in the graduates and the crowd, said Karen Kangas Dwyer, director of the public speaking program at the University of Nebraska at Omaha.
It's also important to pick a theme that fits graduation, such as succeeding because of hard work and help from others.
Dwyer said good speeches express appreciation to parents, reflect on the high school years and look ahead to life after graduation.
McCroy's speech will thank parents for helping the graduates succeed.
His talk also will highlight how North High Principal Gene Haynes reaches out to students, calling them “brotha-man” or “sistergirl” when he spots them at school. Haynes often throws in the student's last name, as in “Good morning, brotha-man McCroy.”
Students like the term because it makes them feel special and unified, McCroy said, and he hopes hearing it will remind them of walking North's halls.
Anna Bracker, one of two students delivering speeches at Underwood (Iowa) High School, will tug on memories from well before high school. Many of the 50 students in her graduating class have known each other since they were little, so Bracker will take them back with this line: “Thirteen years ago, our parents plopped most of us into Mrs. Dickerson's preschool class.”
Bracker expects smiles from fellow graduates, and their moms and dads.
Katie Hamilton, the other student speaking at Underwood's graduation, will look ahead, and sprinkle in some humor:
“Class of 2012, look to your left. Now to your right. You are sitting amongst the next generation of doctors, engineers, farmers and possibly the next CEO of the Country Store!” (The store is a popular after-school hangout.)
Humor is not only one of the best ways to grab the crowd's attention, it also can make a speech more memorable, Duncan said.
Caitlin Chandler, a graduate of Bellevue East High, said humor is why she still remembers parts of a speech her classmate delivered at commencement three years ago.
The student told the crowd that he and his parents used to joke about whether he'd be an achiever in high school. The speaker said his presence at the podium was pretty good proof he succeeded.
“Humor is an easy way to relate to the speaker,'' said Chandler, a UNO junior studying education.
Schools select speakers in a range of ways.
At Underwood, seniors can add their names to a list of students interested in giving a speech. Then the senior class votes and picks two speakers before any speeches are written.
At some school, such as North High, the senior class president and valedictorian deliver the speeches.
Students at other schools write a speech and audition, reading it before a panel of judges that includes faculty and administrators.
That's how Taylor Parr, a senior at Millard West, was selected to give one of the two speeches at her school.
Parr said she wants to connect with students and parents, but doesn't want them wiggling in their seats during a long talk.
Millard West keeps its graduation speeches under three minutes. Parr said hers follows that rule.
Graduation speeches at Millard West used to run six to seven minutes, but a few years ago, the school decided that shorter was better, said Cathy Squires, an English teacher and graduation speech adviser.
A shorter speech requires students to really focus on their theme and find the best examples to support it, she said.
Some speakers — like Parr — have plenty of experience. She has participated in competitive speaking tournaments for four years as a member of her school's forensics team.
Even though she has spoken in front of 500 people at tournaments, Parr said she'll be nervous giving her commencement talk May 26 at the Civic Auditorium to a crowd that may be as big as 6,000.
She said she gets nervous for any speech, but loves the feeling.
“It's an adrenaline rush,'' she said.
Parr said Squires, the Millard West adviser, is fine-tuning the speech, partly by helping her find fresh words to replace ones used elsewhere in the talk.
Other students practice in front of teachers, friends and the mirror.
McCroy, the North High student, said practicing in front of a mirror makes him more aware of his hand movements. He said he wants to use hand gestures during his speech to emphasize points.
Parents often play a key part in speech preparation.
Hamilton, the Underwood senior, has read through parts of her speech with her mom four or five times.
Her mom, Kay Hamilton, said she's helped her daughter slow down her delivery. She told her daughter to pause after each sentence to let the words sink in with the audience.
Katie said her mom is a great sounding board because she's so honest, whether it's about slowing down, changing a word or polishing an anecdote.
“She is just going to flat out tell me,” she said.