When Sumin Lee was 9, her family came from Korea to the United States to make a new life, without any knowledge of the language, school system or culture. On Wednesday, June 16, Sumin stood at the podium addressing the graduates of Lee High School as their valedictorian, with the highest grade point average of any student.
"I didn't even know the alphabet," said Sumin, remembering her arrival in the United States. "Every day, I saw my parents struggle and sacrifice for us."
Sumin recited an inspirational phrase in Korean that she said her mother taught her, which meant that studying pays off, as it did for Sumin. Next fall, she'll study biology at Johns Hopkins University. Sumin looked back on events during her high-school career, which included 9/11, the sniper attacks and Hurricane Isabel.
"Four long years have passed in a blink of an eye. Because we overcame these obstacles, we are better for it," Sumin said.
Her inspirational message was just one of many the Lee graduates heard at the Patriot Center, while they waited for the moment of truth on the stage. Adrian Branch, a former professional basketball player, talked about choices, and inspirational speaker Christian Dorsey talked about the inner person and learning lessons.
"Changing the world is something that lies in each of us," Dorsey said. "Dream of a world as it ought to be."
Branch knew he made some of the wrong choices early in life but went on to play with the Chicago Bulls and the Los Angeles Lakers.
"Making the wrong choices, I got kicked off the team," he said of his college days.
"It's going to be all about lifelong learning and lifelong choices. You're not born a winner or a loser, you're born a chooser," Branch said. He then made the graduates recite that line: "You're not born a winner or a looser, you're born a chooser."
Teachers Jeanne Hansen and Rick Priest gave speeches as well. Priest remembered a race of disabled runners, and how they helped each other along. "What really matters is helping others get to the finish line, too," he said.
Hansen is retiring after 34 years and plans to move to the shore. She said that she had something in common with the graduates. "We're both going to be leaving Lee High School, we're going to be leaving our friends," Hansen said.
AFTER THE DIPLOMA ceremony, with long lines of blue gowns winding toward the stage, the graduation was over.
Sarah Bowling attended school with her twin brother, William.
"Not many people get to experience that. It was awesome," she said.
Muhammad Basit is looking forward to college, hopefully ending up at Georgetown University.
"They were really good speeches out there," he said.
Lee High School had 12 valedictorians this year. The Lancer Award went to Nene Etulle and Omar Shafi, and Matt Lent and Michelle Capuno won the Faculty Award.
Class of 2004 president Sara Lu presented the senior gift, a beautification plaque for a garden at the school.