Over the course of 10 hours on Friday, almost 1,000 Arlington teenagers earned their high school diplomas in graduation ceremonies held at Constitution Hall.
The trip to the District for graduation was already a tradition for Yorktown High School. This year Washington-Lee and Wakefield high schools also came to the D.C. hall for ceremonies spread across the morning, afternoon and evening of June 18.
“I know that for some of you, it was more of an epic journey than others,” said Peter Vogel, a Washington-Lee history teacher selected by students to give the commencement address.
Whatever path they took to get there, seniors were simultaneously exhilarated by their shared achievement and daunted by the realization that high school was behind them.
“It feels unreal,” said Edwin Zepeda, a Yorktown senior planning on attending Northern Virginia Community College.
His classmate Blythe Apple agreed. “It’s kind of surreal,” said Apple, a Yorktown senior heading to Randolph Macon University in two months to study music theory.
As a member of Yorktown’s choir, Apple had seen her share of graduations. “I’ve been to two graduations before, but now I’m down here instead of up singing with the chorus,” she said.
That realization took time to set in. “Actually, it didn’t quite hit me ‘til last night,” said Faith Jennings, a Washington-Lee senior going to Longwood University, in Farmville, Va., to study social work. “It just all set in.”
Still, she said, “I’m happy to get away from high school. I’m ready for college, for the freedom.”
<b>FOR PARENTS,</b> that transition inspired its own mix of emotions. “I’m sorry to see her go, but I’m proud to see her graduate,” said Jim Kidney, father of Yorktown graduate Mary Kidney, who was heading to Denison University in the fall.
He and his wife are preparing to move too, back into the District after moving to Arlington for the schools. But as they move, Kidney said, they will move Mary’s room intact. “They’re even getting the same color paint.”
Ronnie Gordon was preparing for his daughter’s departure as well. Although she doesn’t have bags and boxes packed, or even plans to move out, Wakefield graduate Ambria Gordon is planning to attend NOVA for nursing, her father said, and she’s moving on to the next phase of her life.
“It’s indescribable when you see your child graduate,” said Ronnie Gordon. “That’s the stepping stone, you have to start there. I’m getting ready for the next step. In today’s world, you don’t want to force them out. But I’ll always keep a home for her.”
<b>ONSTAGE, RAYMOND PASI</b> urged students to remember that home. “Don’t let the day slip by without taking your parents aside and thanking them,” said the Yorktown principal.
Other speakers reminded graduates that they were taking a step forward from old school halls, and old behaviors as well.
“People think high school students just want to party and be stupid,” said Leah Adams, Washington-Lee senior, in her valedictory address. “Even if that’s true, it’s not really accurate anymore. We’re not high school students any longer, we’re now high school graduates.”
In the worlds of work, military or college awaiting them, this year’s graduates will be pushed to compete, said Taryn Michelitch, Yorktown’s valedictorian speaker, and competition can sometimes weaken the race toward a shared goal.
“Imagine what we could do, if we could combine everything from our teachers, our peers and ourselves,” said Michelitch. “When passion and knowledge are united, they can be impossible to crush.”
<b>SOMETIMES, SPEAKERS SAID,</b> knowing that a speech is intended for graduation can be daunting. “Even though I stand in front of you guys every day, the idea of addressing you here is overwhelming,” said Michael Lutz, the Wakefield English teacher that students selected as their commencement speaker.
In many ways, he said, it was an unnecessary worry. “If you’re like me, you won’t remember what’s said here, or who’s sitting next to you. You will remember how you feel.”
He offered, by way of his speech, what he remembered about the class of 2004 in the form of a poem, “Channel Surfing Memories.”
No matter the form or content of the speech, he said, everyone at Constitution Hall on Friday was trying to do the same thing. “After the last month, the last week, the last day, when the room’s empty, I never feel like I found the right way to say goodbye.”
<tgl>—additional reporting by Brady Nash