Robe-clad high school seniors from western Wake County filed with precision across downtown stages last weekend during graduation ceremonies. Each school marked the event a little differently, but after all the speeches, handshakes, hugs and tassel-turning, the eager faces of thousands of new graduates were ready to greet the rest of their lives.
Cary High School
It’s hard for parents to tell one white-robed graduate from another in the cavernous hall of the Raleigh Convention Center – and the trouble doubles when you’ve got twin daughters.
“They still can’t tell us apart,” said Shelly Woodley with mock exasperation as she wrapped up a photo session with her sister, Summer, after the Cary High School graduation Friday. The 18-year-old identical twins were more indistinguishable than ever Friday – but the ceremonial commencement uniform will be among the last things they share in an intertwined youth.
Summer is headed to the U.S. Army, while Shelly plans to start college life. Asked if they’re excited for their independent lives, the sisters answered simultaneously, as they often do – but their answers were a little different this time.
Summer nodded emphatically, while Shelly paused a second and weighed her answer.
“It’s hard,” she said, then smiled. “But we still have texting and Twitter.”
All around the sisters, fellow graduates echoed that idea: They would always be Cary Imps, said class president Avery Spey, but they would soon forget all the daily routines and details that bound them together in the first place.
Though they dressed alike Friday, the ceremony was to be their last act as a unit. It seemed every pair of graduates gathered outside the convention center was considering the dramatic change coming.
Hector Quirino, 18, stood grinning with his brother, slapping hands with passing friends amid the post-ceremony crowd outside the convention center. He said that he and his brother, Marcos Quirino, both were bound for Wake Tech Community College, but Marcos may have other plans.
“I thought it was (N.C.) Central” University, Marcos Quirino said, setting off a back-and-forth between the two amid the rush of robes. Even as their graduation ended, they realized again the divergence of their courses: Marcos wants to study engineering at the University of Chicago, he said Friday, while Hector plans to study law at N.C. State University.
For their entire lives they’ve shared the same schools, “same Mom, same Dad, same house, same room,” Marcos said. “It’s hard to think we’re going to live in different states.”
They’d take solace, Hector said, in one another’s success.
“As long as he’s doing what he loves,” Hector said, “I’m happy for him.”
Athens Drive High School
In the final minutes before graduating from Athens Drive High School on Saturday, salutatorian Emma Thorpe told her classmates, “Live for the moment, but plan for the future.”
In addition to cautioning her classmates to plan for the future, Thorpe told them that post-graduation life was a time for self-fulfillment, but not for impulse.
At the beginning of the program as a meditation, student body president Patrick Mason told classmates always to “take pride” in whatever they were doing, as that was the key to success.
In his speech, valedictorian XiaoXang Yang marveled at the kindness he found among his Athens Drive peers after emigrating to the United States from China three years ago.
As the ceremony ended, the inspiring melody of John Williams’ “Star Wars” theme ushered the audience out of the Progress Energy Center for the Performing Arts. It was an oddly fitting choice: the graduates may not be off to a galaxy far, far way, but they will soon begin exploring exciting new worlds on their own.
Panther Creek High School
Panther Creek High School Principal Rodney Nelson quoted Robert Ward as he addressed the fourth graduating class in the school’s six-year history: “I wish you sunshine on your path and storms to season your journey.”
Approximately 3,000 people filled the Raleigh Convention Center to watch the fourth-largest senior class in Wake County, 561 students, graduate Friday.
Nelson said that after counselors set a goal of $5 million in scholarships for the class of 2012, the seniors exceeded that goal by earning more than $7 million to help with their educational goals.
Eric Dekker, a North Carolina Academic Scholar, welcomed families, students and administrators by reminding fellow students of the start of their academic journey in 1999. “We were anxious, excited and full of hope,” he said. “Now, this is the beginning of our next adventure.”
Valedictorian Hunter Patterson said he was proud of his class. “Like many of you, I’ve been waiting for this moment for quite some time,” he said. “Though we may look back on this time as past, we will never truly leave it behind. Cherish these people; they will always be a part of you.”
Middle Creek High School
The crowd was so quiet that the graduates’ footsteps seemed to echo to the farthest rows of the grand auditorium. The Middle Creek High School crowd sat silent for half an hour, bound by a school rule that’s fast becoming a silent tradition.
When the call for applause came, after 372 hushed diploma announcements, the Progress Energy Center for the Performing Arts roared for a minute or more, then again, and again.
The applause seemed finished by the time class president Chad Johnson took the stage, but it thundered again as he led the class’s final graduating act. “It was a good feeling, once we turned the tassel,” said Johnson, 18.
After the near-silent ceremony, the celebration outside the arts center seemed particularly boisterous. “Oh my God, I’m so happy,” one graduate cheered as she swept into a crowd of family and friends.
“This is the greatest feeling in the world, you know it is,” said Walter Jones as his kid sister took pictures with a disposable camera. “Lots of downfalls, suspensions – it felt like I started all over again,” said Jones, adding that he’s the first of his family to graduate from high school.
The hundreds of emotional graduates shared many of the sentiments echoed year after year (“Don’t trip.”). But when it’s your day, that doesn’t matter.
“It really is just hearing your name. It’s your moment,” said Lauren Stilwell of Apex, the school’s student body president. “It’s your moment. It’s so exciting.”
For parents, the day was an affirmation and the beginning of a life change.
“It reinforces, as a parent, that what you’ve given them is the right channel to move forward in life,” said Karen Lee, whose third and youngest child graduated Friday.
Adlena White, a Louisiana grandmother in a striped suit, watched it all from the auditorium’s steps. Her granddaughter’s commencement that day was the first family reunion since a funeral. “So great, so great,” she said.
Correspondent Allison Hussey contributed to this report.