The commencement of Mount Vernon High School’s class of 2006 had all the traditional reminiscences and encouraging words, but the moments that will be remembered by everyone in attendance departed from the script.
Brig Owens, a defensive back for the Washington Redskins from 1966 to 1977, delivered the commencement address. A team captain, player representative and the holder of several team records, Owens went on to earn a law degree and become a partner in a sports management and real estate firm.
“I know your parents and your grandparents were praying you’d make it this far,” Owens told the graduates. “Your education is something no one can take from you … Everything is in front of you. Those dreams can happen if you believe they can happen.” Owens was confident the graduates would overcome whatever challenges they confront. “You’re going to run into some obstacles,” he said. “You’re going to fall. Pick yourself up. Don’t let anyone tell you you can’t do something.”
VALEDICTORIAN Omar Shairzay admitted he did not know what the message of his speech should be. He asked his friends, but they offered little help. Desperate for inspiration and with his options exhausted, Shairzay said he had only one place to turn, “My rock – the internet.” Shairzay then revealed what his search had yielded, a quote from Cicero, “gratitude is not only the greatest of virtues, but the parent of all others.”
But Shairzay’s reflections on gratitude were short-lived. Instead of talking about it longer, he gave his classmates the opportunity to show it.
When Shairzay asked the 2006 graduating class to stand up, there was a moment when no one moved. The entire gym, crammed to the brim with several thousand people, was silent. Then the students began to rise, hesitantly, a few at a time. Finally they stood together, a gowned phalanx at center court, the focal point of the room. Following Shairzay’s instructions, they twisted their necks, scanning the room for family members, teachers and friends who had helped them reach this moment. As eye contact was made, hands went up. People in the audience rose to receive and return the gratitude of the teenagers on the gym floor.
Within a few seconds, the tight-packed square of gowns and mortar-boards had blossomed into a mass of waving, outstretched palms. From the floor to the rafters, parents, grandparents, siblings, aunts and uncles and friends returned the salute. Thousands of arms around the room reached towards the graduates at their center. And the air between the waving palms was electric with the shouts and whoops and bellows that were unleashed when, for the only time in the ceremony, every person in the room had permission to speak their feelings.
SALUTATORIAN Erika Atzl began her address by reading from one of her elementary school progress reports. “Erika’s pace is very slow,” she read. “It seems she tenses up and has a hard time.” It ended on a brief, but positive note, “Hope: with hard work and persistence she can succeed.”
“I’m not up here because I’m smart,” Atzl said. She said she was there because of help from her father, teachers, friends and her mother’s “support for every crazy dream I believed in.”
But one member of the class of 2006 was not there. Andre “Malachi” Harris was killed in a car accident on May 29. Before he died, Harris had completed all of his requirements and was going to graduate. “Though Andre is gone, his spirit remains through his art, his music and his memories,” said Debbi Keefe, the principal of the Mount Vernon Center.
Harris’s parents, Andre Shepherd and Thelma Harris, received their son’s diploma from Principal Eric Brent. Then 333 Harris’s classmates processed to the stage to receive their own.