End of an era for graduates

Published 10:31 pm Saturday, June 7, 2014

Lakeland High School graduate Stephanie Boles expresses her excitement to family members watching her walk off the athletics field with her diploma. (MATTHEW A. WARD/SUFFOLK NEWS-HERALD)

Lakeland High School graduate Stephanie Boles expresses her excitement to family members watching her walk off the athletics field with her diploma. (MATTHEW A. WARD/SUFFOLK NEWS-HERALD)

Families across Suffolk cerebrated as 918 seniors graduated from the city’s public high schools Saturday.

Three commencement ceremonies began at Norfolk’s Ted Constant Convocation Center, with Nansemond River High School in the morning and King’s Fork High School at noon.

King’s Fork High School’s Brandon Gipson gets the attention of a member of the audience.  (Matthew Ward/Suffolk News-Herald)

King’s Fork High School’s Brandon Gipson gets the attention of a member of the audience. (Matthew Ward/Suffolk News-Herald)

Lakeland High School followed later in the afternoon on the school’s athletics field, beneath the hot sun.

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The two out-of-town ceremonies, moved from their respective campuses for an indoor venue with a seating capacity greater than any available in Suffolk, seemed to go off without a hitch.

Seated in the Nansemond River audience was Vernell Horton, proud dad of graduate Deja Horton. “It’s just one of those days I will never forget,” he said. “It was a long time coming.”

District Superintendent Deran Whitney had five main pieces of advice for the students: Take risks – don’t be afraid to fail; believe in something; if you want to have good friends, be one; give something back; and become the person you want to be.

“It’s true when they say it doesn’t matter who you were in high school,” Whitney said. “The nerds — well, they become CEOs, bosses, and sometimes superintendents.”

Nansemond River High School principal Thomas McLemore congratulates a graduate as she walks across the stage. (MATTHEW A. WARD/SUFFOLK NEWS-HERALD)

Nansemond River High School principal Thomas McLemore congratulates a graduate as she walks across the stage. (MATTHEW A. WARD/SUFFOLK NEWS-HERALD)

The school superintendent spoke not only as the district’s top official but the father of graduating senior Chelsea Whitney.

“We have helped shape them into the confident, intelligent, goal-seeking young men and women that are here today,” he told his audience. “If your student doesn’t say it, let me say it: Thank you.”

On crutches, valedictorian Benjamin Littlejohn welcomed his fellow graduates to “this new kingdom called adulthood.”

He said he realized a couple of weeks ago that a state track meet and his graduation were on the same day. He was conflicted over what to do.

“So I asked God, ‘God, help me out; what should I do?’” Littlejohn said. “He made the decision very easy: I have a stress fracture in my tibia.”

Principal Thomas McLemore told the students they had worked hard for their success, telling parents, “You have been a very important part of their success in reaching this day.”

No sooner had the Nansemond River crowd left the convocation center than King’s Fork’s group began flowing in. There was some overlap, in fact, jamming pedestrian traffic a bit.

Waiting for the second ceremony to start, Fred Marshall, all the way from New Jersey to see great-granddaughter Atiena Branch graduate, said he wouldn’t have missed it.

After the superintendent repeated his speech with a few variations — as he would again at Lakeland High School — Nicolas Williams and Kayla Vincent, salutatorian and valedictorian, respectively, offered words of wisdom.

“All right guys, this is it! It’s the beginning of a new chapter,” Williams said. “You may or may not feel prepared for what’s coming next, but you will be prepared, nonetheless.”

Vincent told the class of 2014 they are all equipped with what’s needed to achieve their dreams.

“Only our attitude can determine our altitude,” Vincent remarked.

Lakeland’s ceremony began on the athletics field at 3 p.m. It was hot. Unfolded umbrellas bobbed up and down in the bleachers. People made hats from newspaper, while others at least covered bare heads with handkerchiefs. Here and there, tempers frayed slightly, the heat being a contributing factor.

“We are proud, that’s why we are sitting here in this sun,” said Shirley Bailey, there to see granddaughter Jasmaine Hunter graduate.

“The only negative thing for me is it’s hot for a handicapped person,” said Paul Bailey, the grandfather, seated in a wheelchair.

Willemara Thompson came up from Florida to see grandson Jerome Simms cross the stage. “We’re going to be hotdogs soon,” she joked.

Asked a dumb question, one of the graduates, Maya Brown, said it was hot in her gown. “There’s no breeze or anything,” she said. “It’s hot in here.”

Principal Douglas Wagoner told the audience, “Today we celebrate the success and strength of character that has brought the candidates for graduation to this joyous end of their high school years.”

Valedictorian Amanda Hamm said, “We are about to move on to a stage of our lives none of us can even understand yet.”

She related her dad’s advice: When one has a job, know the janitor’s name, the secretary’s name, “the name of the person that changes out the rugs.”

“They are just as important as you are,” she said.