Hundreds of young Arlingtonians celebrated a milestone in their lives last week by graduating with hefty doses of both circumstance and pomp.
Three of Arlington’s public high schools — Yorktown, Washington-Lee and Wakefield — held their graduation ceremonies on the same day and at the same place, though not simultaneously.
On June 21, the longest day of the year, hundreds of parents, friends, teachers, school administrators and, of course, graduates shuffled in and out of Constitution Hall in downtown Washington to mark the end of their high school careers.
H-B Woodlawn, an alternative public high school in Arlington, held a more informal, non-traditional graduation ceremony for its 82 seniors the preceding day.
In a county that features as much ethnic, cultural and economic diversity as Arlington, the high school experience varies greatly. But, in talking with a number of graduates both before and after they walked across the stage and received their diplomas, many expressed similar feelings of hope, nostalgia and, most of all, ambivalence.
RIMER TORRICO is a native of the county and has attended Arlington Public Schools since first grade. After graduating from Washington-Lee last week, he said that he was both anxious and amazed that his high school tenure has come to an end.
"I just couldn’t believe that this was it," Torrico said. "I was just thinking about it the whole night: ‘Tomorrow is the last day of high school.’"
Torrico was still unsure what to make of graduation and said he was trying to balance out many conflicting emotions.
"It was a mix of excitement because I’m done," he said, "But at same time I felt kind of weird because it’s over… This is it. All this hard work amounted to what?"
Torrico plans on attending Northern Virginia Community College for a few years and then transferring to George Mason University to get his degree.
"I want to do big things," he said.
For now, though Torrico plans on enjoying his last summer with his friends because, once the school season starts back up again, he says, "Everyone’s going to be moving away."
While Torrico is still trying to grapple with the end of his youth, he is thinking farsightedly and trying to keep an easy-going outlook on life.
"I just plan on going wherever life takes me," he said. "I have plans but something may happen. Whatever happens I still believe in myself and I know I’ll make it through."
KELLY DIFILIPPO also graduated from Washington-Lee last week. But unlike her classmate Torrico, who attended one elementary, middle and high school, Difilippo’s educational path has been more varied.
She transferred to Washington-Lee for her senior year from Bishop O’Connell Catholic High School. Difilippo said that the transfer was necessary because her parents insisted that she pay for half of the tuition to the private school and, as she puts it, "I ran out of money."
But things worked out well for Difilippo when she arrived at Washington-Lee and found an open, welcoming environment.
"I never was involved with Bishop O’Connell but with Washington-Lee I got more involved and went to football games," she said. "Everyone knew who I was."
She added that "Some people say [transferring] was a bad idea but I don’t regret it… It was an awesome high school experience."
Difilippo will be attending Virginia Commonwealth University in the fall. She said that she is going there because the school has a good performing arts program, which fits well with her musical talents. Difilippo plays guitar and piano and sang in the Washington-Lee choir.
"I’m excited for the freedom [of college]," she said. "I’m not really nervous about adapting [but] being away from home kind of freaks me out."
H-B WOODLAWN GRADUATES Anna Strasburjer and Abby Churchman are feeling more nostalgic than nervous.
They’ve both been attending H-B, which offers classes for grades six through 12, for the past six years.
Last week, their long tenure at the school came to an end. Strasburjer, who will be attending Shenandoah University to study costume design, said that she still cannot believe it.
"It hasn’t sunken in yet," she said. "It will probably hit when I finally go to college."
"It’s been great to have one constant school," Churchman, who will be going to Grinnell College in Iowa, said. "[H-B] has been such a great place."
H-B Woodlawn’s graduation ceremony was atypical compared with the others. For one thing , there were no mortarboards in sight.
The dress code was casual for the Luau-themed commencement. Parents brought plates of food for a massive potluck dinner and school administrators said a few words about each of the 82 graduates.
"We are an alternative program," H-B principal Frank Haltiwanger said. "[The ceremony is] keeping our focus on the individual."
H-B students were also allowed to participate in their neighborhood schools' graduation ceremony if they desired the traditional cap-and-gown experience.
Jonah Feldman, another H-B graduate who will be attending Brandeis University in the fall, said that, while his school is a little unusual, he feels that he is fully equipped with the skills he will need in the land of higher education.
"I feel it was a better preparation for college than some other schools in Arlington," Feldman, who transferred to H-B from Wakefield in 10th grade, said. "I’ve definitely learned how to spend my free time wisely."
MICHAEL ZEUTENHORST, who graduated from Yorktown, echoed many other seniors in Arlington and across the country when he said that he had very mixed feelings about moving on.
He was relieved to be finally done with high school, sad that he wouldn’t be seeing all his friends on a daily basis anymore, and nervous about his unknown future.
"I had some good friends [at Yorktown] but sometimes there was too much drama," Zeutenhorst said. "But I learned a lot."
Unlike many of his peers, however, Zeutenhorst will be a pioneer.
He will be attending Randolph College in Lynchburg, Va., formerly known as Randolph-Macon Woman’s College. Zeutenhorst and his Class of 2011 will be the first coeducational students in the history of the 116-year-old institution.
Zeutenhorst said he was a little apprehensive when he received a letter from the school a few weeks ago warning him that some students and faculty members may react negatively towards him and his male classmates.
But, for the moment, Zeutenhorst is trying to soak in his final moments with his childhood companions.
"I’ll be seeing everyone for the last time," he said wistfully as he prepared to make the commencement procession with his classmates.
IN THE WEEKS leading up to and following the ceremony, students are bombarded advice. Meanwhile, painful goodbyes to friends and mentors come fast and frequently as the graduates ready themselves for a summer of existential fretting over life on their own.
"I am glad to be out of here," said Wakefield valedictorian Tatiana Letccheva as she addressed her fellow classmates. "But I am also terrified. I am terrified that I will never find another home like Wakefield."
Ultimately, students can take solace in the permanence of their memories, whether they are of facts and theories learned in class or of their less academic pursuits.
"Nothing can stop time," Wakefield valedictorian Lizette Arias said. "But luckily the laughs, hugs, insults and memories are stored in our hearts."