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Moving On

Commencement ceremonies for Yorktown, Wakefield, W-L honor class of 2003.

The journey to graduation takes many forms. For students like Bessy Guevara, Washington-Lee senior class president, it was a trip through hundreds of classrooms in pursuit of a goal.

“I can’t believe this moment you and I have longed for has arrived,” she told classmates at commencement ceremonies on Thursday, June 19.

As Thursday wore on, 1,004 seniors graduated from all three Arlington high schools. Yorktown’s graduation was scheduled earlier in the day, at 3 p.m. at D.A.R. Constitution Hall in the District. Wakefield and Washington-Lee both held their ceremonies at 8 p.m., in their respective gymnasiums, moved in from football fields due to rainy weather.

For parents, watching a child don cap and gown was the culmination of 17 or 18 years of guidance. For Todd Berger, it was also a journey of 1,300 miles, plus a half-mile sprint.

Berger has lived in Lincoln, Neb. for the last 10 years, away from his daughter Semele, who graduated from Yorktown High School last Thursday, along with 339 of her classmates. “I’m pretty proud of her,” said Berger. “I wasn’t sure if I would make it.”

After a long flight, Berger rushed to Constitution Hall, getting there just in time to snap pictures of graduates lining up before the processional. The batteries in his camera promptly died, and Berger ran several blocks through muggy D.C. air to the nearest pharmacy.

“It’s hot and sweaty, but I think it’ll be worth it,” said Berger, blotting the sweat from his forehead before entering the Hall for the ceremony.

INSIDE, GRADUATES listened to speeches from Valedictorians Waseem Daher and Ian Bishop and Yorktown Principal Raymond Pasi.

“While this is clearly an end, it is also a beginning, and a chance to start again,” said Daher. In his valedictory address, he told his Yorktown classmates not to be afraid to make mistakes, and to set high goals. “Good judgment comes from experience, which in turn comes from bad judgement,” he said. “No one sets your limits except yourself.”

Pasi, Yorktown’s principal for the last four years told graduates to think beyond themselves and remember their parents and other family members who supported them over the years. “Never forget to believe in this powerful, special love of your family,” he said.

But it’s also important to enjoy the experience of graduation, which is a symbol of “determination and talent,” Pasi said. “Be delighted with every expression of congratulations that comes your way from those who care about you.”

At the Washington-Lee graduation, commencement speaker Patrick Walsh, a teacher at T.C. Williams High School in Alexandria, urged graduates to keep their school spirit alive. “The education you get here is priceless,” he said. “You can’t get it at St. So-en-so, or Bishop Whatever.”

SCHEDULED FOR the football stadium, Washington-Lee’s ceremony was forced into the gymnasium by lightning and rain, and parents fought for spaces to see their children graduate. Administrators gave out too many tickets, and police officers shuffled late arrivers into other rooms to watch on closed-circuit TV.

The ceremony marked a goodbye not just for graduates, but for Washington-Lee principal Marion Spraggins, who is retiring after 33 years in Arlington schools, the last four of which she spent at Washington-Lee.

Superintendent Robert Smith honored her at commencement. “She is a risk-taker, and she is committed to improving student learning,” said Smith. “Those of us in the Arlington Public Schools are going to miss her sorely.”

GRADUATES SPOKE of new beginnings, and a bittersweet end. “Right now it seems excellent,” said Yorktown’s Andrea Duran. “But I’m sure in a couple days I’m going to realize I’ll miss people.”

Washington-Lee graduate Travis Goldfein echoed her sentiments. “It’s exciting,” he said, “But I don’t think it’s hit me yet.” Goldfein will head to Morgantown, W.V., next year to attend West Virginia University.

Yorktown’s Taylor Chanderlin, who will play golf for Pennsylvania State University next year, had his thoughts on high school friends before commencement. “I’ll miss my friends, but I’m sure I’ll see them again,” he said.

Duran will have opportunities to come back to Arlington to visit those people she misses – she will attend the University of Virginia next year.

Asked whether the house will feel empty next fall, Duran’s mother Sally said, “Just a little, but I’ve got plans. But I’m very happy she decided to stay in the great state of Virginia, so I can visit her.”

EXCITEMENT OVER the future doesn’t mean looking back at high school with scorn, said Katie Clain-Stefanelli, from Yorktown. “I don’t know that I’m glad I’m leaving behind anything,” she said. “I’m just glad I’m making new friends and a new start.”

Others were more willing to wash their hands of high school. “I’ll be able to expand, not be confined to the same space I have to go to every day,” said Yorktown graduate Elizabeth Althaus, who will take time off and add to her portfolio before going to art school.

“[Graduation] is not that exciting for me,” said Henry Johnson, who is leaving Washington-Lee to attend the University of Massachusetts at Amherst next year. “The whole high school experience has dulled my senses and emotions.”

Sonya Soroko, a fellow Washington-Lee graduate, knew that feeling. “High school is one of the worst social environments ever,” she said. Even so, the full impact of leaving has yet to set in, she said. “It’s like so many other transitions. It doesn’t feel like we’re leaving high school.”

MENTALLY, SOME GRADUATES were already at college, comparing their expectations to their experiences in high school.

Jessica Finger will be at Longwood College next year, studying to be a teacher. She’ll be happy to leave behind the structure of high school schedules, and she looks forward to “knowing you have more flexibility in college.”

Like many graduates, Yorktown’s Tyler Anderson was glad to leave behind books and high school homework. “But of course I’m going to have that in college,” he said. Anderson will attend Marist College in New York to study biology and pre-veterinary medicine.

While lining up for the procession into Constitution Hall, he turned his thoughts to his favorite teachers. “Some have been really cool teachers, have shown mutual respect, and are just good people,” he said.

FOR SOME, SAYING goodbye to old friends wasn’t the only source of mixed feelings. “I’ve been to four high schools, so it doesn’t really mean anything,” said Kate Davidson, who came to Yorktown near the end of the school year. “It’s my graduation, and I don’t know anyone.”

Davidson’s father is a diplomat in Israel, and she will return there this summer before enrolling at the American University of Rome next fall. She’ll also spend time in Los Angeles over the summer, filming a TV pilot called “What’s the Matter with You?”

Davidson isn’t the only one planning a career in entertainment after graduation. Throughout high school, Michael Anderson has been in after-school training at a professional wrestling school in Baltimore. After graduation, he will head to the West Coast to continue his training.

Like Davidson, he felt somewhat alone at Yorktown’s commencement, having taken all his classes at H-B Woodlawn. Because Woodlawn is a special countywide program, students return to their neighborhood schools for graduation ceremonies. “It’s weird because I don’t know anybody here,” he said.

EVEN FOR THOSE saying goodbye to old friends at graduation, ceremonies brought a mixture of emotions. “It feels wonderful,” said Washington-Lee’s Sarah O’Neill, who will attend Christopher Newport University. “But I guess I’ll miss the few friends that I really got to know over the years,” she said.

Graduation had many different meanings though. “It’s a relief,” said Richard Buscemi, who will leave Washington-Lee to study voice performance at the Catholic University of America.

For classmate and future UVA Cavalier Natalie Kizou, the meaning was simple: “freedom.”

With all the excitement and uncertainty of entering a new phase in life, graduates couldn’t help but make plans for the future. For Yorktown’s Heather Armstrong, the most important plan was what to do the next day: “I’m going to sleep after high school.”