By Trina Trice
Four high school commencement ceremonies went on without a hitch Saturday, as more than 1,000 seniors heard words of encouragement from fellow students, school administrators and lawmakers.
Mt. Zion and Riverdale high schools had ceremonies at the Twelve Oaks Stadium next to Lovejoy High School. Tara Stadium, closer in proximity to the schools, was closed this year due to repairs being made to the field.
North Clayton High School held its commencement exercises at the newly built and relocated Georgia International Convention Center in College Park, and Forest Park High School had its ceremony at the Clayton County Performing Arts Center in Jonesboro.
Despite the extra drive for some, hundreds of parents, relatives and friends made the trip to cheer on their favorite seniors as they made ceremonial steps that symbolized the end of years of public school education. Following the ceremonies, the graduates received their official diplomas, some with an armful of flowers or a handful of balloons, and many with tears streaming down their faces.
Assistant Superintendent Linda Tanner attended three graduations in two days, having gone to the Lovejoy High School graduation Friday night.
"The graduates of 2003, the speeches that have been given, they've all been very inspiring to all our young people," she said. "The speeches told them to look forward, hold on to your past and remember your family. It's wonderful to see how happy they are. It puts a smile on your face. I'm happy for all of them."
Mt. Zion High School
The graduation of Emily Tiedje was special for her mother Julie Gross.
"She went through some things," Gross said. "I give her a lot of credit, it wasn't always easy. But she had some wonderful teachers. She had a good experience at Mt. Zion High School."
Tiedje is attending Georgia State University to study journalism, Gross said. Tiedje introduced valedictorian Caroline Ly-Nguyen. Her advice to seniors was to look at life and the end of high school as "a great honor."
"Look at the future that lies before us as a dream that is made up of an intricate design," she said. "It is within that dream that we're able to grow, to become complete."
About her speech Ly-Nguyen said later, "It's about looking at life (not) as a nightmare. It's actually something very beautiful."
Ly-Nguyen is attending Oxford College at Emory University to study medicine, she said. Also attending Oxford College is Florence Ekperi, who'd like to study nursing. About high school, Ekperi said, "I remember everything I've done, all the opportunities I've had. I'll miss my friends and what we did."
Bill Mullinax and Lisa Tanner attended the ceremony to support senior Matthew Brandon. They are Brandon's uncle and cousin, respectively.
"He is an honor student and played basketball," Mullinax said. "He's very responsible. He works at Kroger, and still kept his grades up."
Tanner was equally beaming saying, "He's a great guy. We're very proud of him. He'll be a great addition to the workforce."
North Clayton High School
Two Scotts led the North Clayton High School seniors down the aisle of graduation, as if they were being married to their futures. Retiring Principal Willie Scott and State Sen. David Scott led the procession. Scott, the most prestigious speaker of Saturday's four commencement ceremonies, spoke to North Clayton High School seniors. Scott was also the commencement speaker at two ceremonies for Clayton College & State University weeks prior to Saturday.
When asked why someone of his stature chose to speak at a high school graduation, Scott said, "It is so very important for me to be here and for me to be able to support these young people. Never before has it been more crucial to support these young people."
"I like to encourage them," Scott added. "We must do everything we can, especially with our African-American young people to encourage them to stay in school. I hope they will remember to be strong in the Lord and to carry the Lord with them wherever they go. If they do that, if they take the Lord with them, there's no telling how far they can go. But they have to stay strong with the Lord."
Graduating valedictorian Sylvia Seymour said she "feels great."
"I can't wait to go out and experience the real world," Seymour said. "I'm going to miss all my classmates. This graduation is only the beginning. We overcame many hurdles to get here, but there will be more. This isn't the end, it's the beginning."
Seymour is attending Albany State University to study information systems. She'd like to work at Hartsfield Atlanta International Airport after earning her bachelor's degree, she said.
Fellow senior Brian Anderson echoed Seymour's sentiment, saying, "This feels great, exhilarating. It's like I'm going to the next step of my life."
Anderson is going to Georgia Southern University where he'll participate in a joint engineering program with the Georgia Institute of Technology.
Riverdale High School
The atmosphere at the Riverdale High School graduation was electric, as seniors and their family members, who sat in the bleachers that flanked the Twelve Oaks Stadium field, waited anxiously for the sun to go down for a little relief from the heat. Prior to receiving their diplomas valedictorian Daniel Neely focused on keeping his speech "short and sweet," while senior Ashley Blakely remembered that this was the last day of her high school career.
"I won't miss waking up at 6'o'clock in the morning and the exams," she said. "Words can not express my feelings."
English teacher Stephanie Timmons said she was proud of Neely, despite his pre-graduation jitters.
"He's just a very intelligent, deep young man with loads of potential," she said. "His motivation and focus is amazing. He's got so much more to explore in life."
Parent Paula Moore was proud of her daughter Tasha Moore, saying, "It's amazing, it's unbelievable. She did real good in school."
Principal Dr. Gloria Duncan was proud of all the seniors. "This group of students are my first graduating class," she said. "They have been extremely determined and very business-minded. They've had some great ideas. I told them I couldn't have gotten a better senior class. I'm looking forward to great things from them."
To further her positive message, Duncan gave her "Teamwork Makes a Dream Work" speech at the ceremony.
"This is an explanation of what can happen when everyone n students, parents, educators, the community n works as a team," she said.
Forest Park High School
A full house at the Performing Arts Center sat before Forest Park High School seniors who sat on the stage where they also walked one by one as official high school graduates.
Seeing Deondre Marquez Thompson walk was something that his mother Sharon Thompson said she couldn't miss.
"It's a relief," she said. "So many times he wanted to give up, but I stayed on him and encouraged him to finish. I didn't graduate from high school. He wanted to give up for that reason. But I always told him to do the opposite. I didn't want to see him sleeping under a bridge. It's always exciting to see black children succeed in something because a lot of times they're looked down on."
Valedictorian John Preston, who plans to attend the University of Georgia to study art, addressed the happiness of the event and the possible hardships he and his fellow seniors could face in the future, saying Saturday night was "the night of celebration, the next milestone to your future."
"The only thing left for us to do is take a step to the future," he said. "Don't look back; you're not going there now. There will be times when you'll want to give up n those are the moments that shape your life. Those are the things that make you strong."
Salutatorian ThuHong Thi Nguyen, who'd like to major in accounting at the University of Georgia, told seniors "At one time we thought this day would never arrive."
"We are graduating from high school, preparing to go our separate ways," she said. "We're so anxious because the future that lies ahead holds no promise. Make use of what has been given to us. It is education that paves the way to a better future. Dream what you want to dream, go where you want to go and be what you want to be."