About 1,500 Columbia County high school seniors became high school graduates during seven commencement ceremonies held Saturday.
Perhaps the more bittersweet and poignant of Saturday’s graduations was the one for Harlem High School at James Brown Arena, where all public high schools held ceremonies.
For the tradition of moving tassels from one side of their caps to the other as a mark of a graduate, Harlem High seniors swapped their traditional red and black tassels to those colored orange and blue.
Orange and blue signify the colors of the Florida Gators, the favorite college football team of Jonathan Hartman. The 18-year-old Harlem senior died May 8 in a single-vehicle wreck in Appling.
The chair Hartman would have occupied during graduation remained empty except for an orange and blue ribbon tied to it and later given to his family, including his father, Kiokee Baptist Church Pastor Steve Hartman.
As new graduates left the arena floor, each received a bible inscribed with “In loving memory of Jonathan Hartman” from Kiokee Baptist.
In her valedictory speech, Falon Sellers recognized Hartman’s absence, saying she and her classmates were saddened.
Still, Sellers said, graduation is a time for saying goodbye while celebrating the future.
“We’re each going in different directions, but we’ll always have Harlem,” she said.
Greenbrier High School was first to hold ceremonies on Saturday.
Valedictorian Jeremy Lee described graduation as “your championship moment.”
“We have clearly demonstrated that the potential to achieve lies within all of us,” he said.
Superintendent Charles Nagle advised the class to make plans for their futures and to set goals for themselves.
“The decisions you make today will determine how you will live the rest of your life,” he told them.
Cassandra Robinson said she felt very happy and a little relieved to be done with high school, but was anxious about the future.
“I’m jittery, but mostly happy,” she said.
Lakeside High School graduate Katherine Bollag noted during her valedictory speech Saturday that her “Internet generation” has witnessed the invasion of Iraq, the creation of Facebook, the explosion of the space shuttle Columbia, NASA sending a rover to Mars and the election of the first black president.
“In a few short decades, it will be our generation making the news,” Bollag said. “I know the future is in good hands with the 2012 class of Lakeside High School.”
Sisters ruled the day at Grovetown High School’s graduation.
The valedictorian and salutatorian representing the school’s third graduating class were twins Emily and Erin Chizmar.
Both talked of change and the journey they and the rest of their classmates were about to embark upon.
”I believe in humanity and I believe in love,” Erin Chizmar said. “I believe through love we can change the world.”
Emily Chizmar liked what had been created through her years at the school and those who had been a part of it.
“The best thing about high school is the memories,” she said. “Every person, every moment, every day. They combine to create the experience of high school.”
Evans High School closed out the graduation ceremonies for the public schools.
Valedictorian Helen Xiang thanked teachers for helping her learn, and turned her attention to her classmates.
“May you go on to influence others the way you have influenced me,” Xiang said.
Afterward, graduate Wade Kehoe was ready to see what’s next.
“I feel great, absolutely fantastic,” said Kehoe. “The best part is being across the finish line and knowing we have a whole other chapter to write.”
Evans Christian Academy and Augusta Christian Schools also held commencement Saturday.
Evans Christian Academy’s 12 seniors received their diplomas at Crossbridge Baptist Church in Augusta.
Valedictorian Kevin Puha encouraged his classmates to never stop the pursuit of learning.
“With wisdom comes great joy,” he said. “The blessing of a free mind is perhaps one of the most valuable gifts people ever receive, so don’t waste it.”
Teacher Alex McClain, the commencement speaker, gave more practical wisdom in the effort to help graduates succeed.
“If you’re going to be as grown up as you think you are, then you have to deal with whatever life throws at you,” McClain said. “Life doesn’t give you a second chance. ... Let’s all try to live appropriately. Let’s pray. Let’s be kind. Let’s remember what’s good about each day.”
A spiritual commencement ceremony was held for Augusta Christian’s 72 graduates.
“Change happens,” said Augusta Christian Choral Director Chris Norris in his commencement address. “Life happens. How you handle it makes us the men and women we become. It is what it is.”
The ceremony was held at West Acres Baptist Church in Evans.
Norris, also music minister at West Acres, spoke to the seniors about putting their futures in God’s hands.
Instead of giving a traditional speech to her fellow classmates, valedictorian Amaura Brandt played the hymn “Turn Your Eyes Upon Jesus” on violin, accompanied by her brother on the piano.
Class vice president Danielle Mulherin said she is both excited and reluctant to start college at Kennesaw State University, where she plans to study nursing.
“It’s just kind of sad that we have to leave everything to go to college,” she said, quickly adding that she can’t wait to make new friendships.
Jabari Odom, who played football at the school, said “It’s kind of time for the next chapter.”