By Greg Gelpi
Stressful, trying, but worth every minute of it." That is how Riverdale senior Aris Hall summed up her senior year. Trying on tuxedos and evening dresses, Clayton County high schools seniors, members of the Class of 2004, are putting their finishing touches on proms, honors banquets and other year-end activities.
"This year has been exciting, very exciting," Hall, the first of three children to graduate from high school, said.
Hall's high school years have fostered and nourished a love of public service that she developed at the age of 13 as a volunteer at the Hearts to Nourish Hope food bank in Riverdale.
Honing her leadership skills this year as the vice president of Riverdale High's National Honor Society, she has decided to attend Kentucky State University and pursue a degree in public administration. Ultimately, she intends to work for a government agency that administers support to nonprofit organizations, such as Hearts to Nourish Hope.
"It's probably the most talented class I've seen," Jonesboro counselor Alice Greenleaf said. "I think you'll see that across the county. Every class has a personality about them that you remember, some of them positive and some of them negative. With this class, it's only positive. Even the class clowns were talented."
Not only are they talented, but they are also sharing those talents, putting them to use for those around them, she said.
"(The Class of 2004) seems to be more caring about what is happening in the world and what is happening with people," Greenleaf said.
Starlet Joyner, a Jonesboro High School senior is an example of that care for others.
Joyner will become a certified nurse's assistant Friday before she even walks across the stage to receive her diploma.
Joyner, who decided in middle school that she wants to be an obstetric gynecologist, has taken healthcare science classes and is completing an internship as a nurse's assistant.
"It's basically a course that a student would take outside of high school taken in high school," she said.
With a vision of establishing a birthing center, a facility for natural births, Joyner will graduate from Jonesboro High as a certified nurse's assistant and study pre-medicine on scholarship at Xavier University in New Orleans in the fall.
"I plan on opening up a birthing center," she said. "I feel a hospital is for someone who is sick."
For Joyner and many of Clayton County's high school seniors, high school has served as a stepping-stone to college.
The number of students heading to a two-year or four-year university is a little down at Jonesboro High, Greenleaf said, but the number of students enrolling in technical colleges is up. Overall, students seeking higher education have remained about the same.
The school system won't have exact numbers on where students will be going until after graduation.
Despite tensions worldwide, the war on terror and the war in Iraq, students continue to choose to enter the military after high school, Greenleaf said.
Cadet Lt. Col. Thomas Pough Jr., a Morrow High School senior, has been in Junior ROTC for four years, but doesn't plan a career in the military, he said.
Instead, Pough plans to go to college and study management.
"Just from what I'm hearing, a lot of them are afraid because of going into war," Sgt. Sandi Williams, a Morrow High School Junior ROTC teacher, said. "Just the danger. That is their biggest concern. If I go, will I make it back?"
Despite this, she said there is "still a small remnant that have made that patriotic decision."
That "remnant" will become a larger segment in the coming years, she said, since students feel the justifications for the war are just.
"I think a lot more in the future will be willing to do their part," Williams said. "ROTC does not persuade students either way. We just want them to be successful."
School board troubles didn't dampen the joys of senior year.
The Clayton County high school Class of 2004 said prevailing in the classroom and experiences with friends trumped a year-long school system probation.
"It has made me a little disappointed in the school system," Jonesboro High senior Michael Jung said. "When the emphasis should be on students and the classroom, it seems the emphasis has been too much on politics."
His disappointment with the school system hasn't impacted his senior year, though, Jung said.
He expressed hope for both his future and the future of the school system.
"I look forward to seeing what (Superintendent Barbara Pulliam) does with the system," Jung said.
Pulliam was hired as the school system's first black female superintendent in February.
When the Clayton County school system fell on rough economic times, the school board considered cuts to fine arts programs.
Although the cuts wouldn't have affected Joyner, she said that the senior class had an obligation to look after the other students.
A member of her school's chorus since third grade, she said she was hurt by the possibility and wanted to protect the fine arts programs for her little sister and for other students in the school system.
"That crushed me even though it wouldn't be for my class," Joyner said. "I didn't know what to say or what to do at that point. It hurt a whole lot to find out that they were considering taking out the fine arts program."
She said many of the honors students she knows are involved in fine arts.
Of all the events inside and outside of the school system, though, the classmates and the friends will be remembered above all else.
Hall described the Class of 2004 as "united" and having a "pretty good brother-sister love."
While many of her classmates have caught "senioritis," Hall said she has yet to do that in the waning moments of her last year.
"I haven't started counting (the days to graduation)," she said. "I'm going to be really sad leaving my family and friends."
Homecoming, football games and the senior bonfire highlighted the year for Joyner.
"The most difficult thing is graduating," Joyner said, explaining that it will be hard leaving her family.
When the senior section of students at the homecoming started "just going crazy," it hit her that friendships she forged and fostered during her four years could soon come to an end with graduation approaching.
Graduation, the culmination of a high school career, will be bitter sweet, Joyner said.
"I'm scared," she said still with a smile on her face. "I'm being pushed off by myself. It's just a step we have to take. I'm in high school trying to do high school things. I don't want to rush it."
Savoring a year of lasts, Jung said he will remember the friendships and his time with the Jonesboro High swim team.
Looking back over his final year, Jung recounted his memories fondly, but sadly noted his senior year is a year of lasts, "just the last time to do everything."
The Jonesboro High swim team captain is taking his final lap and finding that class time is stretching out and school days are getting longer since spring break. Excited to graduate, yet sad to be leaving, Jung is growing anxious.
"A lot of these people I'll never see again or at least not for a long time," he said.
Bound for Georgia Southern, Jung said he will study finance and marketing with an emphasis in real estate.
The people are making Pough's last year memorable as well.
"We'll probably lose contact with a lot of them after this year," the Morrow High School senior said.
Senior year has given Jayelyn Livingston, a Morrow senior, a taste of what college will be like.
Livingston, who is in the honors and gifted program, loaded up on advanced placement classes in her senior year.
"I guess it gave me an idea of what I would be looking forward to in Xavier (University)," she said. She plans to study pre-medicine at Xavier in the fall.
The Class of 2004 has upped the bar for the Class of 2005. It will be one of the biggest graduating classes with the addition of a senior class at Mundy's Mill High School.