With arms raised, a wide smile and diploma in hand, Joshua Kanakapudi strolled across the Graduation stage at NOW Arena in Hoffman Estates last month with a level of confidence and comfort he never thought possible.
Then again, the last time he was on a Stevenson stage, things went pretty well for him.
“I thought everyone was going to boo at me, but they didn’t,” Kanakapudi said of his previous big stage moment. “Everyone cheered.”
A native of Buffalo Grove, Kanakapudi, Class of 2023, didn’t spend his entire high school career at Stevenson. But he certainly ended with a bang and now has a special message he’d like to share not only with his fellow graduates, but with all Stevenson students.
“I wanted to give a speech at Graduation,” Kanakapudi said. “I (didn’t) get to, but I wrote the speech anyway because there were some things I really wanted to say. I wanted to inspire people who might have similar struggles to me, especially younger kids who might get the chance to become a Patriot just like I did.”
Kanakapudi says that he was diagnosed with autism when he was younger and he had been going to alternative schools in the area. But all the while, he dreamed of one day being a Patriot.
He started at Stevenson a few years ago participating at first in just a couple of after-school activities, such as Art Club and Guitar Club. With that going so well, he then started taking classes on campus.
Along the way, Kanakapudi made friends. He felt less like an outsider, and more like a true Patriot. In fact, his confidence grew so much that when he saw information about the Senior Showcase advertised around campus last winter, he barely thought twice about applying to participate.
“When I saw that poster about the Senior Showcase, I thought, ‘This is my chance, my chance to prove that I belong here,'" Kanakapudi said. "During the rehearsals, I made friendships. People treated me like a brother. I felt like I wasn’t a nobody anymore. I was feeling confident. I was like, ‘I can do this.’”
For Senior Showcase, Kanakapudi sported a cowboy hat and shades while performing a song he wrote: a country tune, with a twist of rock.
“I put on my hat, rocked my guitar and I sang,” Kanakapudi said. “Everyone was congratulating me after, and I was so happy. Nobody really knew me before the Showcase, but after that, it seemed like a lot of people did…and just for being me. When I first got to Stevenson, I worried that no one would like me. I thought they’d see me only as an IEP student. But at Senior Showcase, I realized that they weren’t looking at me as an IEP student, they were looking at me for my personality.
“That gave me so much hope and courage. Because of that, my senior year (was) great.”
That jubilant march onto the Graduation stage was the pinnacle. The speech that Kanakapudi had written played in his head as he raised his arms triumphantly in the air.
“Everyone is unique in their way, but feeling like you don’t fit in because of your past doesn’t make you who you are,” wrote Kanakapudi, who will be attending Northeastern University in the fall. “It’s your inner confidence, your compassion, your kindness, your determination, your respectfulness… that makes you the person you are now. I’m happy I lived in the present rather than the past…so I can live in a greater future.”