LINWOOD — Every year, a high school valedictorian, salutatorian or class president stands in front of their peers at graduation and says that the life lessons learned in high school will prepare their graduating class for adulthood.
The more than 370 seniors that graduated from Mainland Regional High School on Thursday were not reaffirmed of this. They did not need to be.
Within the past two years, they grieved the deaths of six fellow students, including four who would have graduated alongside of them Thursday. They battled Mother Nature through hurricanes and earthquakes and were displaced during a major school renovation project. This was on top of the regular diet of drama that they faced just being teenagers.
But there were also highs, such as individual and collective academic, club and athletic accomplishments. There was the intricate "lip dub" video — set to inspirational songs like "It's My Life" and "Stronger (What Doesn't Kill You)" — that followed the student body throughout the school, showcasing their unity and diversity.
And, of course, there was the $140,000 in athletic apparel through Under Armour that the school won by defeating schools from across the nation after students successfully demonstrated — through a tireless campaign — that the Mainland Regional community had an "Undeniable" sense of school spirit and pride.
From heartbreaking lows to thrilling highs, these seniors experienced more than their fair share during their time at Mainland. And their graduation ceremony brought a similar range of emotions. It had to.
The joyous celebration of academic achievement took a time out to pay tribute — with the ringing of bells — to each of the four deceased students who would have graduated Thursday.
"It runs the gamut, it really does," first-year Principal Mark Marrone said of the mixed emotions felt about the graduation. "There are a lot of reasons that this year was memorable, good and bad. And even though the year has come to an end, there will still be some processing going on for some time."
But it is the overwhelming sense of community — and the manner in which these seniors battled through adversity — that Marrone said will stand out the most.
"I am so proud of them," he said. "I am confident that they will make a difference, and I'm excited to see what's next."
The promise, and personality, of Mainland's seniors was reflected in the speeches delivered by its top two students.
Salutatorian Rebecca Shaber implored her peers to continue being brave.
"With courage, we found hope in each other and we pushed forward. We formed a bond within the school and the community that had the power to create miracles. … We proved that we were resilient; with bravery and a passionate community, we overcame the tragedies we withstood," Shaber said.
"Nerves and lack of confidence may hinder us as we enter the next part of our lives, but we must not be intimidated by what lies ahead. We cannot be afraid to make mistakes, for we will see no advancement unless we take chances," she said.
Valedictorian Kevin Hazlett started with a thank-you list that included everyone from "underpaid news personnel" to his dog Rocky, who was too rowdy to attend.
Hazlett then offered his fellow graduates four solid pieces of advice:
-If someone is more than three paces behind you, don't hold the door for them. "It will save you and them both some hassle, and they'll be thankful."
-Remove the word "moist" from your vocabulary. "There will never be a situation where it will be appropriate to use the word 'moist.'"
-Stop leaving voicemails. "Your message probably isn't important enough to make someone go through the incredible pain of checking voicemail."
And before parting with a "tricky" quote from Run-DMC, Hazlett gave his best advice.
"Don't let these be your golden years. Don't be that enthusiastic weirdo at a class reunion who everyone tries to avoid but accidentally makes eye contact with. Look at your yearbook, cherish the memories, build on the friendships, but realize, too, that you're not even two decades old yet," Hazlett said. "So take one last look at Mainland … and then look forward to the rest of your lives."
Graduations are often cookie-cutter programs that are similar from year to year, where school officials try to chauffeur the latest alums through a ceremony without any "incidents."
This would not be appropriate for Mainland Regional, not this year at least.
As the tassels on their caps were being turned, there was a staged state of confusion in the proceeding before the two students on the podium turned to the audience and thrust their hands in the air as the hook of Fun.'s contemporary rock anthem "We Are Young" started playing over the loud speakers.
The entire graduating class then took part in an impressive, and lengthy, choreographed dance, at the end of which they tossed their caps in the air and officially became graduates.
This "flash mob" was a demonstration that surprisingly had the full backing of the school's administration.
"Graduation is their chance to shine. We should let them shine," Marrone said beforehand, adding that Mainland's students are not taught obedience but rather good decision-making. "We trust them to do the right thing, and they always have."
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