It was windy out as hundreds and then more than a thousand people clamored across the lot to get a good seat inside the Civic Center for the Salem High graduation.
Looking up, there was a threat of rain in the clouds, too. It never rained outside, but inside this year’s graduation celebration was a torrent of emotion: lovely sadness at times, powerful pride, and mostly, a palpable sense of togetherness.
“We did it,” students kept saying to each other as they sat pretty quietly in a back room before the event. “I did it.” Music played a brilliant role leading up. The jazz renditions by members of the marching band were almost mesmerizing. And not long after the welcome, before most of the remarks and awards, several senior members of the Salem Singers took the stage to sing, “In My Life,” by John Lennon. There was silence. Lennon’s words, “There are places I’ll remember…all my life, though some have changed. ”It was a chance to think back, look ahead, wipe away a tear, dream a dream. The singers held the audience rapt with their soft voices blended…together. “All these places have their moments. In my life, I’ve loved them all.” The group got perhaps the biggest applause of the afternoon. What is high school if not a winding road of experience? A journey, as SHS principal Scott Habeeb said to the crowd, his voice booming.
A journey from kindergarten to today, he said. And, what Habeeb said about tomorrow: “Your life is most meaningful when it is spent serving others.” That message resonated on a day when most were excited about their own accomplishments. The principal said there is more satisfaction when we extend our reach to those less fortunate. Speaker Lauren Wygal followed. She spoke of waiting so long for graduation day. And she added her own verse to the proceeding. “We all counted the moments,” the graduating senior said, “and we all made the moments count.” And for some of Tuesday’s graduates, there was exceptional effort involved. Things were a little tougher for them.
Students such as Bethany LaPrade. Prouder than you can imagine at getting that diploma. “One of the best days of my life,” she said. Students such as Caleb Underwood, who’s suffered from serious seizures for years. She said she had brain surgery when she was a freshman to relieve them. They still happen, though they are not as bad now. “It’s been hard for me,” Caleb said. “But here I am.” Students such as Taylor Wilson, whose father, stepmother and little brother and sister came all the way from Okinawa to be there for her special day. “It’s been a struggle,” Taylor said. “Everything. Academics. Financial struggles. But right now, I feel on top of the world.” For her father, ex-Marine Channey Wilson, the travel time alone was 24 hours. “We’re as tired as you can get,” Wilson said. “But I was going to be here.” There was a theme of threes during this ceremony. Seth Greer, who tried out to be a speaker and was one of the students selected, told the group, “We are Spartans for the rest of our lives.” And Salem Spartans stand for three powerful things, he said. “Integrity, selflessness, and pride.” Superintendent Dr. Alan Siebert said that he had asked teachers to write down on an index card the most important elements of why they do what they do.
What stood out, Siebert said, was that teachers want to “love, engage and inspire.” The superintendent encouraged the new graduates to do the same after they leave. Nicole Quinn, who also won the opportunity to speak, said the moment of graduation was, “exhilarating, almost overwhelming.” She also urged the class of 2015 to “take responsibility” now. Life would demand that of you, she said. Senior class president Robert Andrews spoke from the stage, too, after he was honored with this year’s Yon Kyu Lee Senior Achievement Award. Yon was killed in a traffic accident in 1981. He had won the outstanding senior award in 1980.
Yon’s sister brought flowers to the stage for Andrews. After the ceremony, roses in his arms, the new graduate said, “I am humbled. I can think of so many people in our class more deserving. I am just humbled beyond belief to receive this award.” Among the graduates in this year’s class were Mayor Randy Foley’s son, Grant, James Edward Taliaferro III, and Ashton Ledbetter, son of school board member Artice Ledbetter and her husband, Julius. Before the ceremony, Ledbetter was walking in the halls with a magnetic smile and holding a small sign with her son’s picture on it. “Oh, I am feeling fantastic,” she said.
As the hundreds of students lined up later to receive the coveted diploma, they had to prepare for that moment, as well. Aishah Brown (one of the Salem Singers who’d performed the John Lennon song) was almost shaking she was so excited. “I just hope I can get to the top of the stairs without falling,” she said. “I’m nervous. But it’s such a great day for all of us.” At the end, after all the new memories created, there were the words of Atina Minnis, mother of new graduate, Na’Quan Poindexter. “He’ll be the first in my family to go to college,” she said. “I’m so happy, you just don’t know.” For his part, Poindexter held his diploma close and simply said, “I did it.”