With pomp, circumstance and humor, nearly 1,600 students received diplomas Friday and Saturday during Columbia County commencement exercises.
Harlem High School led off the weekend’s marathon of ceremonies, with 173 seniors receiving their diplomas at the school’s stadium.
It was the first time in 30 years that a Columbia County public school has held graduation on its own campus, and students recognized the importance of the event.
“It was wonderful, I’m so glad they did it out here,” said salutatorian Madeline Shepherd. “It represents our small Harlem community.”
Tabitha Osborne, the senior class secretary who helped the other class officers push through the outdoor graduation, echoed the sentiment.
“It feels more like home here,” Osborne said. “James Brown Arena feels rushed.”
The 173 graduates took the field in front of a standing-room-only crowd at 7 p.m. with the sun beaming down.
“We share one thing in common, we are here today reminiscing on our great times together and enthusiastically looking forward to moving on to something,” valedictorian Sean Spurlin said.
In his last round of graduations after 24 years in the county school system, Superintendent Charles Nagle imparted wisdom one last time.
“My advice to you is to make a plan and set your goals,” Nagle said. “Today is the first day of your future.”
Nagle presented that advice four more times on Saturday, as the county’s other high schools held their commencement exercises at James Brown Arena.
The 374 graduates of the Greenbrier High School class of 2013 were short eight members in their 8:30 a.m. exercise, as the senior members of the baseball team traveled to Marietta, Ga., to play in the AAAAA state championship game.
Part of Brianna Blair’s salutatory address seemed appropriate.
“Each of us has had our personal struggles and conflicts, but we came out victorious,” Blair said.
School Board Member Mike Sleeper and Greenbrier Principal Chris Segraves drove the baseball players’ diplomas to Marietta and presented them to the seniors after the games.
When the 2013 graduating class of Grovetown High School walked across the stage at James Brown Arena Saturday morning, they accomplished something that none who came before them had.
Grovetown opened its doors in 2009, and 175 of the 267 graduates were charter members, the first ones to graduate after attending the school for all four years.
“This is awesome knowing we’re the first four-year class,” said Hunter McBride. “We’re the cornerstone of the great future I see for the school.”
Principal Penny Jackson said the students accomplished a lot in a short period of time.
“They are the ones who have established our identity and the traditions that have been created are because of this class,” said Jackson.
Jenny Herbert, 17, was nervous backstage before Lakeside’s ceremony, and wore comfortable shoes to avoid tripping on stage.
“I’m very clumsy,” she joked. “I’m bound to trip at some time.”
The exercise took a humorous turn when teacher Craig Middleton gave the commencement speech in the form of a music montage. He sang snippets of Garth Brooks’ “The Dance,” REM’s “Everybody Hurts,” and “A Whole New World,” among others, before imparting wisdom to the 363 graduates.
“Life doesn’t get any better than it does in high school,” Middleton said. “It is all meaningless unless someday you find it, the Rainbow Connection, your spiritual connection in life. Search for it and you will find it.”
Before the final public school ceremony, Evans High School’s Camrie Hodges still didn’t quite believe she was graduating.
“It just doesn’t seem real,” she said. “It just seems like a dream.”
Salutatorian Rahul Shah encouraged his 329 classmates to not only search for financial or academic success, but personal happiness.
“If you just manage to do what you love and love what you do, you’ll succeed,” he said. “Work hard. Do what you love and you’ll achieve your wellness dreams.”
In addition to the weekend’s public school graduations, Augusta Christian Schools presented diplomas Saturday to 60 graduates at West Acres Baptist Church.
“God has instilled in each one of us a passion that we can use as an influence in others’ lives,” said valedictorian and class chaplain Erick Sostre.
But while much of the Christian school’s ceremony followed spiritual themes, the seniors also continued a tradition of playing a prank on the chairman of the school’s board of directors.
As most of them crossed the stage, each handed board chairman Ed Brown, who also had been selected as the commencement speaker, a piece of a puzzle – leading to a puzzled look on Brown’s face as his jacket pocket began to fill.
His daughter, class treasurer Kendall Brown, had the class portrait made into a puzzle, and fellow seniors gave pieces to her father during the procession.