They heard stories of great tragedy.
They celebrated great triumph.
And in the end, 1,119 Columbia County high school seniors marched away from the Augusta-Richmond County Civic Center Saturday with diplomas in hand.
For the Class of 2002, it was an accomplishment of a lifetime, but one achieved in the shadow of great suffering. During the graduation ceremonies, which were held in two-hour shifts throughout the day Saturday, many of the speakers evoked thkjje memories of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks - news that broke while they were in class.
"I remember being in Ms. Hainey's class while hearing news of the World Trade Center," said Harlem High Valedictorian Jessica West. "Tragedy like this let us know that we can't always control the world around us."
Evans High's graduating class of 334 started out the day with ceremonies beginning at 10 a.m. And they set the tone for things to come. September 11 is an event that will be indelibly linked to this happy time.
"This time of reflection tells us one thing: that no matter what, we've made it..." said Andrea Dobos, Evans High's senior class president. "...We've learned the true meaning of perseverance. With this perseverance, our class has survived and has united at times of national tragedy that left this nation in disbelief."
Evans Salutatorian Justin Gregg echoed those sentiments.
"Although our high school careers may have been dampened by tragic events that were out of our control, we are able to work together to move on and rebuild the pieces of our lives," he said. "We will always remember those who are unable to be with us now."
Evans Valedictorian Jessica Kelly issued her address in verse, using the imagery of a stained glass window to describe the complexity of life.
"My life is but a stained-glass pane,
Colored through the years,
With love and joy and triumphs won,
But also pain and tears.
We've all been hurt; the trials are tough,
But that's the stuff of life.
Have faith, stand tall and persevere,
Through hardship, pain and strife."
And the next line continues: "But also there's the sunshine..." and though none could literally be found Saturday, there were plenty of happy faces to brighten up the auditorium.
"It's great. I'm just so thankful to God I could finish and pursue my future educational goals," said Evans graduate Danielle Simmons, who was holding a large balloon bouquet and flowers after the ceremony had ended.
For parents, such as Kelly Hokrein - the father of Evans graduate Stephannie Hokrein - the day was one for the history books.
"I'm proud of my daughter. Excited. Speechless," he said.
Evans graduate Christian Stallings was overwhelmed by the ceremony.
"I can't even explain it," he said. "It's the happiest day."
With the smallest number of graduates - 156 - Harlem High's noontime ceremony began with a "Wuz Up" from drama teacher and the school's Teacher of the Year Roy Lewis. During his commencement address, he used the analogy of a quilt to describe the intricate, colorful and detailed nature of life. Parents are the backing of the quilt, teachers are the padding and each experience - good or bad - adds to it, he said.
"Sometimes in making the quilt, there will be crooked stitches and slight imperfections, but it is your quilt and it is beautiful," Lewis said. "...Continue to design your quilt with the strongest colors, the most detailed patterns and the richest textures that fit you."
Class President Angela Lewis and Salutatorian Ben Crowe both reflected on the years and events their class had shared together. Valedictorian Jessica West became tearful as she recalled some of her classmates that have meant so much to her.
"This is not just the completion of 13 years of school work," she said. "We have built a foundation for the rest of our lives. We have shared four years of life and we will forever be bound together by our experience."
She encouraged her classmates to strive to do their best.
"Now you have the opportunity to make the most important decision you will ever make: not what kind of college you will attend or what career you will pursue, but what kind of person you will become."
After the ceremony had ended, graduates and their friends and family gathered in the staging area.
"It's great," said Katrina Rogers, who was getting hugs from her co-workers Suprina Middleton and Tara Brown. "It's a new life, a new start, a new job and a new beginning."
Aura Vega was brushing the tears from her cheeks as family members flashed away.
"I'm just so happy," she said. "I wasn't very excited at first, but now that it's over I realize it means something."
"It's a very special day," said her grandmother Miriam Cintron.
For Kevin Ward graduation day marked the ending of one stage of life and the beginning of another.
"All our hard work and hard times have paid off," he said. "It's time to grow up, be a man and get to the real life."
Anna Elizabeth Barton, salutatorian of the Greenbrier class, emphasized the personal relationships developed during the four years the class has spent together.
"Our experience in high school hinges on relationships," she said. "Whether you realize it or not, you've helped develop the characters of each of your classmates."
She said that not only were the relationships among the class of 2002 instrumental in forming the characters of the individual members but also the relationships with teachers, administrators, relatives and friends.
Ashley Roberta Roemer, Greenbrier valedictorian, suggested that the graduates not look only to themselves in the future to measure success.
"We should not measure success by what we gain, but by what others gain," she said.
During the awarding of the diplomas to the graduates, a festive atmosphere descended on the hall as graduates brought out two beach balls before being confiscated by teachers. One of the balls was confiscated so quickly it did not get fully inflated.
Following the graduation, Ashley Hollingsworth said "I feel great. I feel breathless."
She said the best part of the ceremony was "getting my diploma."
Victoria Balcer, valedictorian of the Lakeside class, quoted Charles Dickens' A Tale of Two Cities, "It was the worst of times, it was the best of times," in regard to graduation day.
She said it was a wonderful day full of tears, and the graduates were preparing to leave their nests at home.
"No matter how much we deny it, we're not quite ready to leave mom and day," she said.
Sirikishan Shetty, Lakeside's salutatorian, said that in the future, the graduates, above all, must remain true to themselves and that graduation was only a milestone on a long journey.
"We've worked hard for four years, and now we can move on with the rest of our lives," he said.
Lakeside graduate Allison Bowman said after the ceremony that the realization of graduating had not seemed real until Saturday. "It's finally hit me," she said. "I'm very excited. I'm more excited than I thought I would be."
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