By Clay Wilson
Some observers might have speculated that this year's graduation at Patrick Henry High School was especially poignant for Principal William McManus.
After all, the man who was instrumental in starting the county's alternative school 10 years ago will retire as of June 30.
But, he said Friday afternoon, it's hard to regard one ceremony as any more special than the others.
"They all are (poignant), because a lot of these students probably wouldn't have graduated if it hadn't been for Patrick Henry," McManus said.
PHHS is the county's alternative school. Its students whether there by referral from other schools' administrators or by their own choice learn the state-required curriculum at their own pace, assisted by teachers whose role more closely resembles tutors.
"Aren't we all glad that (McManus) never looked at or expected PHHS to be a place to punish kids?" asked special education teacher Debbie Queen during the school's graduation. "Aren't we glad that he looked at PHHS as an opportunity for some nontraditional kids to shine?"
As is traditional, Patrick Henry held its ceremony Friday afternoon, before the evening ceremonies of the other schools. This prompted the commencement speaker, U.S. Rep. Mac Collins, R-Jackson, to quip that the school's 62 graduates were "ahead of the class."
"You're here today because you have a can-do attitude," Collins said. "Always keep your attitude positive."
Collins told the graduates that despite the uncertainty in the world the war on terror, a competitive job market and other concerns they can succeed.
Graduate Spencer Propst could be facing the war against terrorism head-on in a few years. He earned a placement at West Point, the U.S. Military Academy an honor granted to only 10 percent of the more than 13,000 students who apply each year.
Propst said he thinks the second chance that Patrick Henry afforded helped secure the berth at West Point.
"Patrick Henry sealed the deal, as it were," he said.
Having "slacked off" by his own admission in 11th grade at Union Grove High School and failed trigonometry, Propst was convinced to give PHHS a try by McManus who is his grandfather.
"Having him there meant that I understood the opportunity it presented," Propst said. He earned a diploma with distinction from PHHS meaning he earned even more academic credits than he needed while maintaining at least a 3.0 grade-point average.
Many of the graduates Friday could have told stories of hardships some brought on by their own actions that could have prevented them from graduating from high school. McManus indicated it is this sense of obstacles overcome that gives PHHS' graduations their special poignancy.
"All graduations are emotional," he said, "but if you really want to see an emotional one, come to Patrick Henry."
Steven Hornsby's father was visibly moved as he embraced his son after the ceremony.
"I'm proud," he said. "He lived a hard life. He had to struggle through everything. He stuck it out; he didn't quit."
"It wasn't that hard. Please, Dad," said Hornsby, with the image consciousness of an 18-year-old.
Hornsby, who spent three years at the school, now plans to attend Gordon College and the University of Georgia to study accounting, engineering and business management.
"I'm glad it's finally here," he said of graduation, but conceded that he has ambiguous feelings. "They say (high school is) the best years of your life. When you're in there you think, ?No way.' (But) when you get out, you realize, yeah, they were."