THOMSON - New Thomson High School graduate Steven Kitchings still looked elated several minutes after he received his diploma.
"It just feels like a huge load has been lifted off; it's just awesome; it's really good," he said with a smile.
Thomson High's 227-member senior class graduated last Friday night. Days of rain rendered the Brickyard unusable for graduation, so the festivities were moved to the school's gymnasium.
One problem: the gym couldn't hold all the families, friends and classmates, so some members of the crowd had to watch the ceremony in classrooms on closed-circuit television.
While the sweltering gym often caused the crowd to become restless, the aura of achievement still lingered on every word.
"We have met, befriended, and learned from people we might have never encountered otherwise," said valedictorian Kaili Walker. "We as a class have overcome many tribulations, which in turn have made us heartier and stronger."
"I think it's personally one of the most rewarding things in education," said Dr. Ed Grisham, superintendent of McDuffie County Schools. "Especially when you've talked to the children at some state and see them reach that milestone.It's just tremendously rewarding."
At one point, graduates gave their parents a standing ovation. Class president Cassidy Story said, "We know you will always be here to provide the love and encouragement we need. We've created many memories and achieved many accomplishments, but none of these things would be possible without our parents."
Thomson High School Principal Bill Reese stressed that he didn't feel that the students' achievement should be taken lightly.
"Nowadays we look at the challenges and the requirements of people getting into college, and things are more stringent. Contrary to popular perception, I think it's harder now to get a high school diploma than it's ever been."
Friday's graduation ceremony closed the book on the 2002-2003 school year and began the summer break. For Thomson Middle School Principal Claude Powell, his graduating eighth-graders will begin their own journey through high school in the fall.
"The eighth grade year is a great time mostly for the eighth-grade students because they get to experience it as upperclassmen," he said. "As the year winds down, the anticipation comes up again, but it's a positive anticipation but with a sense of confidence and awareness and responsibility with going over to the high school. They're leaving the nest."
Graduate Michelle Wilkerson recalls those days fondly.
"It's great," she said of graduating. "It's strange, but great. The teachers, the people, it's been awesome. It feels like just yesterday I was in ninth grade."
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