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They left with sadness at leaving old friends, joy at being freed from the rigors of high school and excitement at the prospect of a whole new world opening up before them.
But all of the high school seniors who graduated Saturday did so with one thing in common – pride in earning their diplomas.
Saturday’s walk to the stage sends nearly 500 students out into the world to meet life’s challenges – 247 from Collins, 220 from Shelby County High School, 14 from Cornerstone Christian Academy, 2 from Corpus Christi, 10 Shelby seniors from the Christian Academy of Louisville and one from Kentucky Country Day, for a total of 494 graduating seniors.
Collins’ commencement was the first of the county’s public schools, at 1 p.m., then at 7 p.m., SCHS was the site of an identical scene, the stirring music, tearful and joyful students seated on the gym floor, and family and friends on the bleachers in the same emotional state.
At SCHS, however, the ceremony started not with a look forward at the journey before the graduating seniors, but instead an emotional look back at a senior that was not at the ceremony.
Senior class president Ben Bohannon began his address by asking the entire assemblage to join him in a moment of silence in memory of Emma Durham, for whom a seat had been left vacant among the graduates. Durham would have graduated this year if she had not died of cancer at age 16 in 2012.
“In memory of Miss Emma Durham, the Shelby County Class of 2014 has decided to wear yellow ribbons to symbolize Emma’s journey across the stage with us,” Bohannon said.
Tears glistened in the eyes of many seniors at his words, the auditorium awash in a sea of yellow ribbons, worn not just by seniors but by school staff as well.
Bohannon acknowledged, “We have been through a lot, but there is still a lot more to come. Our time here is over; a new journey is before us. We are about to move on and start our lives in the real world.”
Senior class vice president Samuel McGuiness also began his speech by speaking of Durham.
“I want to take the time to mention someone who made a great impact on our class,” he said. “Emma Durham was an incredible friend to many of us here, and those who didn’t know her personally were still touched by her story. Emma will always be in our hearts.”
McGuiness shared the podium with senior class treasurer Ashley Hilger, both of whom talked about the highlights of the past four years, including some for the school, one of which was the dedication of the school gym to University of Kentucky basketball great Mike Casey, a Shelby County native who died in 2009.
A double address was also in store for the crowd by the salutatorian; SCHS had two, Samuel Lambert and Douglas Martin.
“With the same courage it took to cross this stage, the same courage will be needed to walk the stage of life,” Martin said.
Said Lambert: “When you’re thinking about that next step in your life, be it college, career or military, or something totally different, before you ask yourself how much success it will bring you in the future, ask yourself how much you enjoy simply doing it.”
Collins senior class president Ryan Ruff noted that his class is the first four-year class from Collins High School, and paralleled that education to the school’s namesake.
“I’m proud of you,” Ruff told fellow seniors as he gazed out over the sea of faces in the school’s gym at commencement exercises Saturday. “Four years ago, we started an educational journey that we knew would lead us to this day.
“We’re the first freshman class ever to graduate from Martha Layne Collins High School, so we have been given the opportunity to create our own traditions. Man, you are sitting in the governor’s mansion,” he said, amid applause as former Gov. Martha Layne Collins beamed with smiles, seated behind him on the stage.
Valedictorian Phillip Burkhardt drew laughter when his turn came to speak.
“I thought about trying to impart some wisdom to you today,” he told his classmates, “but seventeen years is not enough time to get a lot of that.
“As we leave this gym today to go out into the world, just remember to let your life be like a five-course decadent meal.”
Amid laughter and applause, he added, “Here is my challenge for you. Know what makes you happy, because nothing really matters if you’re not happy.”
Collins High School Principal John Leeper reminded students just before Shelby County Public Schools Board Chair Allen Phillips declared the seniors as graduates, to be sure to always remember not to find ways to serve themselves, but to “see how you can serve others.”
Both schools sported numerous students who graduated with distinction.
At Collins, 15 students graduated Summa Cum Laude (4.1 or above); 21 earned Magna Cum Laude (3.7 or above) and 56 earned the status of Cum Laude (3.5 or above).
At SCHS, 12 students graduated Summa Cum Laude; 16 earned Magna Cum Laude and 40 earned the status of Cum Laude.
SCHS Valedictorian Ethan Russell capped the night inspiring words for his classmates.
“Each of us here has embraced the challenge and is ready to graduate,” he said, adding that today’s world is one of innovation and ever-changing technology, just as it was for graduates of the school in the 1960s.
Unlike those early graduates, though, he said, today’s seniors face a challenge even more daunting – keeping up with the incredibly fast pace of ever-changing technology.
“The 2014 graduates must continually reinvent themselves in the workplace to succeed today,” he said. “I challenge you to take the successes you have had and the challenges you have faced, and build on that. Let’s make the future our own. Let nothing hold you back from reaching your goals.”