Bryan County High School’s 112-member Class of 2016 entered the school gym Saturday morning as students. They left as alumni.
But not until after the requisite words of encouragement from administrators and classmates and the requisite speeches and the requisite playing of “Pomp and Circumstance.” All that was a part of it, and then some.
The commencement ceremony lasted about an hour and took place before a packed gym that included many who were not let in until after the seniors had already been seated. Doors opened throughout the ceremony as latecomers found ways to get inside to cheer their graduates.
Afterward, some who moments before had picked up their diplomas had difficulty putting the moment or how they felt into perspective.
Heather Smith was one such BCHS alumna who was not quite sure how to describe the morning.
“It’s hard to say,” said Smith, an aspiring nurse who will attend East Georgia State College next fall. “It’s emotional, hard, leaving this place. I teared up. I’m trying to put it into words; I don’t know how to explain it.”
But judging by the smiles Smith shared with classmates, it was not a bad feeling. Not at all.
“Oh, it’s a great feeling. An amazing feeling,” she said. “I’ll miss school here, and friends, but to finally get out of high school and go on, it’s amazing.”
Smith and her classmates are an amazing bunch, according to Principal Crystal Morales, who finished up her first year at BCHS after serving years as principal at Carver Elementary.
“You have risen to the challenge every single day,” she told the class, noting that she was honored to be their principal. “You should be applauded. You are resilient. You will do well in life.”
Salutatorian Apurv Patel, BCHS’s STAR student, also cheered his classmates, while reminding them their bonds are deep.
“We are more than a class, we are a family,” he said. “Never forget where you come from.”
Patel also urged his classmates to keep striving to achieve their goals.
“Keep your dreams close to your heart and do everything in your power to achieve them. And also bear in mind, once you’re a Redskin, you’re ...”
That brought a reply from the graduating class: “Always a Redskin.”
Valedictorian Allison Lamb followed Patel and ended her address to classmates the same way after starting her remarks by congratulating them on making it to graduation.
“We made it,” she said. “I remember as a little girl thinking 12th grade is so far away. Now, I feel I just blinked and here it is, graduation day. I am so proud of all of us.”
Lamb then thanked Jesus Christ.
“He deserves all the fame and glory, because without him I would not be standing here,” she said.
She then thanked teachers — some by name — and spoke of what they learned in high school, whether it was how to “solve equations with more letters than numbers,” or “stand in front of class and hold a conversation in Spanish,” Lamb said. “And we were taught that there was no right answer to literature because our own thoughts matter.”
She noted that BCHS students were blessed with “some of the best mentors ... we have all grown to love tremendously,” and she reminded students of extracurricular activities ranging from pep rallies to band competitions to sports.
“Before we all embark on our individual journeys and pursue our separate goals, one thing each of us has is a special gift,” Lamb said, noting that whether her classmates decided to go into college, the military or into the workforce, “always remember you are capable of anything you desire to achieve.”
One classmate who is choosing the military and knows his path is Jordyn Manning, who plans to spend three years in the Air Force and then go to college to study aeronautical engineering. He was matter of fact about what graduation meant to him.
“Today’s been exciting. And honestly, it’s been a good journey with all my peers,” he said. “We’ve been together for a long time and I’m going to miss them. It’s been fun.”
Participating in graduation as an educator never gets old, said Bryan Schools Superintendent Paul Brooksher, who conferred diplomas on the seniors and as superintendent declared them officially graduated.
“It doesn’t get old. This is always a great moment,” he said.
“It was great,” she said. “These kids are a great bunch of students. They make it easy.”
They may have also made some unintended history as the last class to graduate in a ceremony held in the BCHS gym.
The Class of 2016 was one of the smaller classes in recent BCHS history, yet Saturday’s crowd overflowed the gym. But the next three are going to be larger, both Brooksher and Morales said, so a change in venue could well be in the works.
“It’s definitely going to be part of our conversation next year,” Brooksher said.
“With the participation we had in graduation from the community, we definitely have to consider moving the venue,” Morales said. “It’s either that, or turn people away, and we don’t want to turn people away.”
Morales said Monday morning that one option is Hanner Fieldhouse at Georgia Southern University, which hosts commencement ceremonies for all of the Bulloch County schools and is about a 30-minute drive from Pembroke.