In the wings of the Patriot Center, where last minute details were being made before the graduation ceremony for T.C. Williams High School, the mood was restless. Graduation usually takes place in the school's football stadium, which was unavailable this year because of construction. The school had never used the Patriot Center.
"I've never had nothing to do with an hour before graduation," said John Porter, the retiring principal. "What could possibly go wrong?"
He darted across the stage again, repositioning folding chairs to form a more perfect arc. He walked to the edge of the platform, making sure that students would have an unobstructed path. As the school band rehearsed John Swearingen's "In All Its Glory," Porter dashed back to the greenroom to assume the vestments of a proper academic graduation.
Then, from the back rows of the Patriot Center, a sound emerged. At first, it was a murmur. Later, it grew into a slowly building echo. Parents were entering. The early arrivals snagged the front-row seats. Some came bearing signs that had been written with paint on sheets. They sat toward the back.
One sign that could clearly be read from the floor said "Congratulations Sandra — Piquina — You made it!"
"Piquina is her nickname," said Johnny Zambrana, the boyfriend of T.C. senior Sandra Cordoba-Medina. "Her goal is to become a doctor."
The graduating senior's father traveled from Columbia to be a part of the celebration. Some friends traveled from California. The boyfriend's sister also came to help hold the 10-foot sign.
"We are so proud of her," said Beatrice Zambrana while she waited for the seniors to enter the arena. "She's such a good student, and we are confident that she can accomplish her goals."
"POMP AND CIRCUMSTANCE" began flooding the hall, and the seniors entered two-by-two. Each was clad in graduation robes, and seniors could choose which school's colors they wanted to wear: red, white or blue. Parents, relatives and friends brought the approval to a deafening crescendo.
"Andre!" "Vanessa!" "Steve!" "Lisa!"
The high school seniors took their place on the floor of the Patriot Center and quickly began scanning the audience to find their loved ones. After finding them, the students would smile and wave — trying to look reserved in their robes.
"The time has finally come," said Jessica Dantzler-Henry, a senior who delivered the welcome to students, parents, relatives and friends at the Patriot Center. She explained that the two candles on the stage represented two students who passed away during their high school years: Laura Lynam, who died in a car accident in October 2004, and Schuyler Jones, who was beaten to death in Old Town in September 2003. "They are with us here tonight."
Superintendent Rebecca Perry introduced School Board members in attendance and quoted President Franklin Roosevelt: "We cannot always build the future for our youth, but we can build our youth for the future."
Valedictorian Rebecca Glasberg reminded graduating seniors about the uncertain days of starting high school at T.C. Williams.
"Everyone remembers their first day at school — I remember getting lost," she said. "We have made it through some terrible crises."
Glasberg noted the Sept. 11, 2001 tragedy, the sniper, the death of Schuyler Jones and, most recently, the death of Laura Lynam.
"Had she not been in the car that day, she might have been the one standing here as valedictorian," she said. Ultimately, Glasberg's address looked toward the future. "The comfort zone we have all been cradled with is gone once we accept this diploma," she said. "But one thing remains certain, and we all know that the cliché is true: 'Once a Titan, always a Titan.'"
Salutatorian Kendra Keith used her speech as an opportunity for reflection and remembrance.
"The reality of tonight is that our lives are about to change forever," said Keith. "I want you to ask yourselves: Do I take myself too seriously or not seriously enough?"
Keith also took a moment to recognize the school's outgoing principal.
"Tonight, our school owes thanks to John Porter," she said, honoring the retiring principal who will be accepting a new position as assistant superintendent. Students and parents erupted into a prolonged show of support for Porter, who has been principal of T.C. Williams for 21 years.
Porter soon took the stage, waving his hand to stop the applause.
"Thank you very much, but this is not about me, it's about the class of 2005," he said. "You've been a truly wonderful class. Seriously, you've been one of the best in my career."
Porter urged graduates to take some time for self-examination, reflecting on what they had accomplished. He asked them to be proud of their achievement and take time to thank those who had helped along the way: parents, teachers, friends, relatives and coaches.
AND THEN, The roll call began. The graduating class of 2005 walked across the stage one by one, accepting empty diploma cases. The real ones would be mailed, as the program explained, to students who "satisfactorily complete all scholastic requirements."
As each student's name was announced, family members and friends in the audience shouted approval. In some parts of the Patriot Center, it was impossible to hear over the roar of incessant screaming.
Some parents retreated to the hallway. The mother and stepfather of Taylor Boykin retreated to the refreshment stand after Porter handed the high school senior his diploma case.
"He's still reviewing his options," said mother Joy Harris. "He's looking at different colleges, and we still have time to make a decision."
"This summer, he's been working in my lobbying firm," said stepfather A.J. Harris, who works at Williams & Jensen. "For an 18 year old, it's been a sort of career Whitman's Sampler. He's really enjoyed it, and they've enjoyed him too."
After all of the seniors received their diplomas, there was still one more to be given out. The class of 2005 presented Porter with his own diploma and a trip to New York City and tickets to a play.
"I'm honored to be a member of the class of 2005," he said.
IN THE GREENROOM where guests of honor were taking off their robes, Porter displayed his new diploma.
"Advanced studies," he said, examining the text of the document. "They obviously didn't know much about my high school career."
When the guests had departed and the room was almost empty, Porter was still in charge. He helped clean up the food table and made arrangements to leave the Patriot Center as orderly as he had found it. He took another look at his high school diploma and did what most graduating seniors were doing.
"Now it's on to the all-night party," he said.