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‘First in, First Out’

South County Secondary’s first senior class celebrates its graduation.

In a risky outdoor ceremony marked by a level of pride remarkable even for a graduation ceremony, the two-year-old South County Secondary School celebrated its first graduation Friday, June 14.

Speaking to her fellow graduates, senior class president Cecilia Lukes recalled the first day of the 2005-06 school year, when "we all had to start from scratch." Being students of a brand new school, said Lukes, presented her class with certain privileges, as well as challenges. For example: "For two years, we got to rule the school."

Seniors at the nearby high schools, from whose areas South County drew, were allowed to stay at their schools after South County opened. Lukes recalled the school’s first football game against Hayfield Secondary, which many of the new South County students had formerly attended. "As everyone got into it and stormed the field, I was proud to be a Stallion," she said to the crowd, referring to the school’s mascot.

Lukes told her fellow graduates that, in their life after high school, many people would try to tell them what to do, what to buy and who to be. In the face of such pressure, she encouraged her classmates to remain adaptable, to cultivate the ability "to learn how to learn," and "of course, follow your heart. It’s the best career counselor there is."

Colleen Ireland, who was chosen by her fellow valedictorians to give the Valedictorian Address, related how she had been admonished by friends not to make the speech "cheesy," and how she had agreed, initially. "But then I got to thinking that this is South County Secondary School’s first graduation," she said. "And it’s our graduation." Ultimately, said Ireland, she had decided that "a little cheese is in order."

She invoked the author William James, quoting, "There is but one cause of human failure. And that is man’s lack of faith in his true self." She therefore reasoned that her classmates would not meet with failure. "Think about how many people said South County sports couldn’t do much in its first couple of years," said Ireland, noting the Patriot District Championship title the baseball team has carried for two consecutive years and the cross country team’s participation in the regional championship. She also cited the four Cappie theater awards the school recently won, Gold Key awards won in the Scholastic Art Awards, the participation of marketing students in the recent international DECA competition and overall high test scores. "If there is one thing the faculty and students have in common, it is faith in themselves," she said, urging her classmates to take that confidence with them.

Each of their diplomas, she said, "signifies so much more than a high school degree. It means you started something amazing. We started traditions here that will live on into posterity." Ireland noted that the school and its students also "took an area known for the barbed-wire fencing of a prison and turned it into a place known for brick walls of knowledge," referring to former Lorton Prison, on whose grounds the school now sits.

And she named the title of the first play performed at the school, "You Can’t Take It with You," advising classmates to be generous and to "live every day to the fullest."

PRESENTING THE class gifts, Maneesha Chaudhary noted that the class had helped to create the school crest, which reflects various disciplines, had introduced the Spirit Rock as an outlet for school spirit and had provided the South County banner stretched between the football goal posts behind her. More importantly, "In only two short years, we have built a strong fan base for the school’s sports and arts," said Chaudhary, adding that the class of 2007 had set an example for future students by it sense of community and its "desire to aim high."

South County Principal Dale Rumberger had also turned out to be a gift to both the community and the school, she said, introducing the ceremony’s next speaker. Chaudhary said Rumberger "relentlessly and selflessly gives his time" to the school and is "caring humorous, open-minded and loves his students." Chaudhary also noted that Rumberger was named one of the Washington Post’s Distinguished Educational Leadership Award winners.

Rumberger began by presenting the Principal’s Award to Lukes, who he said had consistently demonstrated duty, responsibility, personal integrity, selflessness, a devotion to excellence and a soft-spoken zeal.

Addressing the class, Rumberger said he had pondered his words more carefully this year than he had for any commencement speech he had given. "It is simply now the time to do — to be the next you," he said. Echoing Ireland’s sentiment, he noted that the classmates had demonstrated faith in themselves as well as their new faculty and administration. "You came here when there was a building but no program," said Rumberger. "You even had faith in the weather."

Later in the ceremony, the sky would darken ominously but would never break.

For their leap of faith and their efforts, Rumberger told the graduates, "I personally and professionally thank you."

"I’m the first commencement speaker at South County Secondary School, and I’m just as proud as you are," said

GEN. COLIN L. POWELL, former Secretary of State, former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the afternoon’s keynote speaker.

Powell noted that the graduates also owed a debt of gratitude to the faculty "who have helped you to bring this school to life," including Rumberger, who was Powell’s neighbor some 30 years ago.

He recalled the first time he spoke on that same hill, when he gave a talk to a group of inmates at Lorton Prison around Christmas time 12 years ago. Powell said he had been "deeply saddened" by the experience, as many of the convicts had seemed to him to be decent young people who had made mistakes and poor choices.

"I am happy that on this hilltop, on this day, we now have South County Secondary School, full of young men and women who have made the right choices," he told the crowd.

Powell shared another memory, that of going off to college "with my solid C average" and with little sense of direction. In college, he said, he had found the ROTC program. "I realized I was good at it, and therefore, I had to give it every single thing I had," he said. In pursuing his military career during the years that followed, said Powell, he learned to persevere and to deal with failure by learning from it, casting it aside and not wasting time coming up with excuses for it.

"Seek out that which you love to do and which you do well," he said. "Never settle for anything less."