At each of this weekend’s 13 local graduations, family members beamed with pride, the graduation march played without fail, the graduation programs doubled as fans to counteract the heat and the words “We did it” echoed at each ceremony.
But the 3,920 students who graduated from the Winston-Salem/Forsyth County Schools (WSFCS) system this year each had an individual story and set of challenges that got them to the much-awaited graduation day.
“We have a very, very diverse group of students here… We have some who worked through sickness to be here today, some who have even been homeless and lived in a car, we have many who have worked part-time jobs…” Lida Calvert Hayes, a member of the WSFCS school board, told West Forsyth graduates at their afternoon graduation, applauding their accomplishments. “You may live to be 100 years old, but you’re not going to forget today.”
On their four-year journeys to graduation, students overcame personal loss, battled health issues, juggled school work with athletics or found their way after soul-searching journeys.
Friday and Saturday’s stormy graduation days were a chance to celebrate all they had conquered.
“Just to make it to graduation is incredible after four years of hard work,” said Carver graduate Kaleb Childress, who wore a sling to graduation after hydroplaning and getting in a car wreck two weeks ago. “I was determined to come to graduation, no stopping me, because this is a big accomplishment.”
Resilience and determination shone through in the many student speeches at Saturday’s eight commencement ceremonies, which also included Glenn, Reynolds and North Forsyth high schools.
The student speakers took different approaches in their speeches, some quoting former presidents, the Bible and even N’Sync lyrics at the Mount Tabor graduation.
“We are a family at Mount Tabor and we have a lot to be thankful for. Just think of all we can do as we move forward…” said student council president David Craver, who sang a few lines of NSYNC hit “Bye, bye, bye.” “We all have special gifts. We all matter.”
Mount Tabor valedictorian Max Thomas told his classmates, all of whom donned navy robes, to remember that high school is just a springboard for their future and told them to chase their dreams.
“While our stories have been drastically different up to this point, in the here and in the now, it doesn’t matter. We’re sitting in the same room all as one…” said Thomas, who will attend Washington and Lee to study political science and environmental science. “Go out and attack the world with a sense of unbridled ambition. You never know what you’ll accomplish.”
‘A day of celebration’
Among the many accomplishments to celebrate is the whopping nearly $112 million the district’s students were awarded in scholarships.
Of the ranks of students were two Morehead-Cain Scholarship winners, two National Merit Scholarship recipients and five National Merit finalists.
The students will attend more than 115 different colleges and universities across the country, according to WSFCS spokesman Brent Campbell.
Each will pursue their own set of dreams from accepting Naval and Coast Guard appointments to chasing careers as astronauts, politicians, teachers and engineers.
Carver graduate Alyssa Hendrix, 18, said she would like to become a businesswoman and the next Kylie Jenner while following her passion for make-up.
“I didn’t always like high school, the gossip, the drama. Tenth-grade was really hard for me,” said Hendrix, who is planning to attend the Makeup Institute in Greensboro. “Today means the world to me.”
For Mount Tabor Principal Ed Weiss, the day was a chance to not only celebrate the hard work of his 373 graduating seniors but also to hand a diploma to his daughter, Emily Weiss, just as he has done with his two other children in previous years.
He urged the graduates — some of whom have enlisted, others pursuing college or other ventures — to take on the world without fear.
“Since you were little itty-bitty kindergartners to 12th-grade sitting here today… you have been filled with anticipation and maybe a little bit of uncertainty to what this day and milestone means in your life,” Weiss said. “Today is the end of one world and the beginning of another. Today above all is a day of celebration.”
Behind the scenes
Between Friday and Saturday night, tens of thousands of friends and family members braved the traffic to attend one of the 13 graduation ceremonies held at Joel Coliseum and the Winston-Salem Fairgrounds Annex.
The behind-the-scenes logistics can be dizzying to manage and contracts with the venues are settled years ahead of time, said Jonathan Wilson, who coordinates between the graduation venues, the school system and law enforcement to make the impossible possible.
“Planning for graduation starts the day after last year’s graduation,” said Wilson, the security director for WSFCS.“Saturday is a 15-hour day start to finish, so it all has to go off without a hitch.”
With so many moving pieces, the graduations have to adhere to a strict schedule and each school is allotted two hours to complete their ceremony.
The staggered graduations started at 8 a.m. Saturday with East Forsyth and any time delays could disrupt the upcoming ceremonies in a domino-like fashion, Wilson said.
As graduation for one school ends, graduates from the next school begin showing up an hour early to get ready.
“Traffic is a humongous piece to the puzzle. It’s a fine dance of a lot of people coming in and out in a small amount of time,” Wilson said.
“We have a rotating schedule of schools, a large school followed by a smaller school, followed by a large school. That way the traffic in and out is not so overwhelming.”
On the graduation days, every parking spot around the two venues and the Wake Forest football stadium across the street is utilized, he said.
The venues hire their own security companies to ensure the safety of all in attendance, he said.
“If it weren’t for law enforcement directing traffic and DOT (Department of Transportation) setting up cones, it would be unmanageable,” he said.
Even with all the streamlining and safety precautions in place, graduation day can still be hectic, especially when it comes to finding parking in the middle of a thunderstorm as many West Forsyth parents had to do.
But despite the chaos, Carol Robinson said it was worth it to see her grand-niece graduate.
Robinson was one of about 100 family and friends who flew in from New York and New Jersey to watch West Forsyth senior Trinity Washington graduate, she said.
“We got soaked, but we’re very happy to be here,” Robinson said. “I remember when she was 9 days old, never mind 19 years old. I’m so proud of her.”
West Forsyth graduate Pedro Villasmil told his peers to thank the family members who have loved them unconditionally, the coaches who pushed them and the teachers who taught them.
The encouragement helped get them all through the 785 school days between freshman orientation and graduation, which as promised went by quickly, Villasmil said.
“As awkward freshman, we were anxious about fitting in and finding our way. We’ve all had our unique struggles over our past four years,” said Villasmil, Student Government Association president. “As I look out into this beautiful sea of green and gold, I see the greatest our generation has to offer. It’s awe-inspiring.”
Forsyth Middle College and Early College held their ceremonies in May, kicking off the graduation season.
Five schools — Reagan, Parkland, Atkins, Kennedy and Carter high schools — held their graduations Friday night.
Winston-Salem Preparatory Academy will be the final Winston-Salem/Forsyth County school to graduate on Sunday.
Walkertown High School graduate Tiffany Tzintzun said she is proud of all she and her fellow classmates have accomplished and looks forward to seeing what they do in the future.
“Part of me is sad, saying goodbye to the people I’ve known since kindergarten,” Tzintzun, 17, said. “But at the same time, it brings me happiness to know we’ve all grown into this stage of our lives where we get to decide what comes next.”