Graduation season for Columbia County schools got off to a hot start for a second consecutive year at Harlem High School on Friday night.
Before a packed house in the school’s football stadium, the 160 graduates heard speeches about taking pride in accomplishments, having courage and persevering.
Valedictorian Jared Long challenged his classmates to work their hardest at everything and to look at the bright side of life.
“A positive outlook on even the gloomiest of things can make all the difference and can inspire hope in someone who might need it the most,” Long said in his valedictory address.
Long’s presence on the podium should have been inspiring enough. He was diagnosed with a brain tumor in sixth grade and has had multiple surgeries from that time on, with all of the tumor being removed just this past Thanksgiving. He was able to become valedictorian despite missing large chunks of school.
“I’ve had doctors’ appointments out the wazoo,” Long said. “I’ve had a couple of surgeries and missed some school and stuff. I missed 10th grade a little bit, like February to the end.”
He thanked his good friends, teachers, and administrators and especially his parents for believing in him. He also cited his faith in God with giving him the strength to cope.
It was also a special night for Dr. Sandra Carraway, finishing up her first year as Columbia County schools superintendent.
Carraway, a 1981 graduate of Harlem, gave her first commencement address as superintendent to her alma mater.
“It dawned on me driving over here that I graduated from this school and here I am standing before them as the leader of the school system,” said Carraway. “It was an awesome experience.”
Friday’s ceremony was the first for Carraway and other school officials this past weekend.
On Saturday, cheers and applause filled James Brown Arena throughout the day as four Columbia County high schools – Evans, Grovetown, Greenbrier and Lakeside – held graduation ceremonies.
In all, more than 1,500 seniors crossed the stage to receive their diplomas Saturday.
Evans High School led off the day at 8:30 a.m. before a packed house that was abuzz with excitement long before the ceremony started.
Valedictorian Amy Youngsman tracked the graduates’ journey beginning in kindergarten with pigtails and Power Rangers backpacks to the current day.
“Throughout high school we’ve begun the discovery of who we are and who we want to be,” she said. “The events of our senior year – both good and bad – define what it means to be the class of 2014.”
Youngsman noted what graduating meant.
“Graduation is a milestone that marks the day you start taking direct control of your decisions and futures,” she said. “Whether you’re going to college, the military or straight to the workforce, the future is what you make of it. In the words of Walt Disney, ‘If you can dream it, you can do it.’”
At Greenbrier High’s ceremony, valedictorian Josh Bartlett said “ambition” is the word that came to his mind for graduation.
“Hold on to the ambition that you have right now and carry it with you,” he said.
Grovetown High graduate Linward Jackson was looking forward to moving on to college.
“Now I just have four more years at GRU,” he said after the ceremony.
Gerry Meixiong, a Lakeside High honor graduate, said he was relieved his high school career was over and that he could relax a bit. He said he planned to visit relatives in China over the summer and work before going to Stanford University in the fall.
He plans to study engineering but said that could change.
“I’m so not ready to decide right now,” he said.
Colin Garcia said he planned to study mechanical engineering at Georgia or Georgia Tech but didn’t consider himself a math or science whiz.
“I liked physics when I could understand it,” the 17-year-old Lakeside graduate said. “But what I really like to do is put things together.”
James Brown Arena wasn’t the only place tassels were being turned Saturday. At West Acres Baptist Church in Evans, 73 seniors from Augusta Christian Schools received their diplomas.
Before the ceremony, salutatorian Anna Motes was worried about fighting off tears and where she’d stash her tissues.
“I don’t want to cry during my speech,” she said. “This place (Augusta Christian) really is a family. It’s a joyous day, but kind of sad.”
Motes made it through her speech without the tears that flowed afterward. In her address, she tried to explain the effect the school has had on her and that opening the next chapter of her life is bittersweet.
“I’m excited to be moving on to the next part of life,” she said. “But I cannot describe the impact 313 Baston Road has had on me.”
Staff writers Steve Crawford and Jim Blaylock contributed to this article.