Leon Harris scanned the faces of the Winston Churchill High School seniors as he addressed them during their graduation. Then Harris, an ABC-7 News anchor and Churchill’s commencement speaker, couldn’t help himself.
“Man, I haven’t seen an afro like that since I graduated from college,” Harris joked. Then the bearer of said afro, Abou Camara, stood up and with arms open turned around for the audience at DAR Constitution Hall to appreciate the hair that couldn’t be hidden by the traditional graduation headgear.
It was one of several light moments at Churchill’s graduation ceremony on Friday, June 1, for which Harris gave the commencement address.
Harris told the seniors that graduating “is the strangest feeling — you can’t go back and you can’t stay. … You’re still wondering what’s going to happen next.” Harris said that that uncertainty was a good thing, because uncertainty does not dissipate as one gets older and each day brings new opportunities to do things that one never expects.
For Harris, that meant becoming a news anchor. Harris began working at CNN after he graduated from Ohio University. He began as an intern, then as a camera man, and then he worked with the lighting and satellite crews. Several years into his career at CNN he had to interview a local police chief when a news story broke and a reporter was delayed in arriving on the scene. Harris was chosen to interview the chief.
“Something clicked,” Harris said, as he found himself asking question after question and getting the police chief to share a wealth of information. A senior vice president of CNN happened to be in the control room during the interview, and from there the rest was history, Harris said. He became a reporter for CNN, covering news around the country before settling in Washington, D.C. with WJLA in 2003.
“Pick the right friends,” Harris said. “People who tell you what you can do, not what you can’t do. And how do you get those friends? By being that friend.” Harris also encouraged the graduates to try any and everything that came their way and to constantly add new experiences to their bag of knowledge. The first step for the students, said Harris, would begin as soon as they walked out of the doors of Constitution Hall.
“You’ve been good at being Bulldogs the last four years. Right now it’s time to stand up, go out and find what else you’re good at. Good luck and God bless you.”
“LET ME TALK with you one last time,” Churchill Principal Joan Benz said when she took the podium. “You have grown up in a turbulent world [where] our safety and security are not assured.” Benz said that the fragility of life was highlighted by the tragic shooting at Virginia Tech.
“ ‘The ultimate measure of a person is not where they stand in moments of comfort and convenience, but where they stand at times of challenge and controversy,’” Benz said, quoting Martin Luther King.
The challenge to the Churchill class of 2007, Benz said, is to become highly educated so that they can lead the nation and the world into peace and safety.
Churchill senior class president Jonathan Shim encouraged his classmates to remember one another and to never forget their roots.
“Look at the people around you,” Shim said. “These are the people you have spent the last four years with and have formed memories that are unshakable.”
Shim said that over the four years he and his fellow students benefited from many teachers who went beyond the curriculum to make lessons meaningful and poignant. “Learning from the heart sure beats learning from the books … so thank you for your toil in our education.”
To the parents, Shim said that their help had been invaluable to the graduates, whether the graduates had always said so or not. “There is an unspeakable core of gratitude,” Shim said. “I hope you know that; I hope you feel that.”
Then Shim spoke again to his classmates.
“Here’s to coming to school as naïve freshmen and leaving as loud, big-headed seniors,” Shim said. “Here’s to our dreams — the big ones, the shattered ones, and the pieced-together ones.”
Shim offered advice for fellow seniors friends as they prepared for life after Churchill.
“I don’t know what’s in store beyond those doors,” Shim said. “Be your own weird, quirky, silly self and kick the dirt around a little bit, and make waves, not ripples.”
THEN BEGAN the procession as graduates filed across the stage to receive their diplomas.
Wearing white gowns, the women went first. When they finished their procession and it came time for the men to receive their diplomas, a wave, accompanied by a vocal roar, rolled through the blue-clad men; after some gesturing and shouting, the wave rolled back in the other direction.
Banjo Obayomi did a dance step, thrust his arm in the air, then hugged Benz. A renegade beachball flew into the air, was batted around by the seniors, then was quickly nabbed by Churchill faculty.
As the last of the Churchill men returned from the stage to their seats with diplomas in hand, another wave broke out. Then Benz spoke the words that everyone had come to hear.
“Ladies and gentleman, you are now Churchill graduates.” As Benz continued to speak, her instruction of what exactly the new graduates should do with their tassels was drowned out by a roar from the class of 2007 as their mortarboards soared into the air.