Germantown High School's final graduation was a celebration, not a funeral
A newly minted Germantown High School graduate, Shyhiem Crump stood outside the New Covenant Church posing for pictures just before noon Wednesday. In his hands was a framed black-and-white graduation photograph of his late father Darnell.
Crump conceded that he was both a little nervous before the big day and bummed since he and his classmates represented the last graduating class in GHS' 99-year history.
Then, he was asked how his father how would react if he was standing here today among a half-dozen friends and relatives who just watched this achievement.
"He'd be smiling," Crump beamed. "Just like me."
An emotional spectrum
Beginnings and ends.
Joy and melancholy.
Those were the tenors of the day when members of Germantown High's 146th class went from being students to alumni.
Come Friday, when the community staple closes its educational doors for good after months of debate and despair, the 146-member Class of 2013 will go down in the ledger as the school's last to receive diplomas.
But as acting Principal Alexis Greaves succinctly summarized after most graduates filed away from the Mt. Airy church's campus, "It's not a funeral. It's a celebration of these kids."
While that held true, those with long ties to the school eulogized GHS beforehand.
They'll miss it
They included Michael Hawkins, the dean of students and GHS football coach, as he made final event preparations.
"A lot of remorse," he said, audibly sighing at the church's side door around 8:30 a.m. "A lot of sadness, too. But there are good memories of good people through the years. . . I just wish Superintendent William Hite had stopped by" the school like he told people he would before supporting the closure.
"But today is about the students," he continued. "This is about them. This is about their achievements"
Still, having spent 90 percent of his public-education career at a soon-to-be-shuttered school, Hawkins said it was a tough day.
After a two-hour ceremony during which he briefly donned a hat, sunglasses and a cane to raucous applause – and guided the white- and green-gowned grads-to-be through commencement entrance and exit – he said a burden had been "reluctantly lifted."
Hawkins will spend a couple weeks reflecting on what has come before, before starting his career's "semi-retirement" phase.
"All we can do," he said, "is put them in a position to succeed."
Retired principal returns
They also included Principal Emeritus Margaret Mullen-Bavwidinsi who, having retired in April, returned to congratulate students who started at GHS the same year she did. The bond formed from that timing was evident.
Before commencement started, she told NewsWorks that she did not want to call it a sad day.
"It's bittersweet," said Mullen, clad in a black gown in a church foyer where she would hug GHS Alumni President Vera Primus. "It's a happy day for these students, even if we feel like [the closing] didn't have to happen."
Both women said the school had turned a corner in the past four years. They equated the closure decision to the district not living up to promises made to GHS students.
"This was going to be the class that changed it," said Mullen, noting improved test scores and swelling pride within the school community. "They took ownership. They took responsibility. They were good role models for the younger students."
Primus got choked up talking about the pain of knowing this class would be GHS' last.
"They were told that if they succeeded, we would be fine," she said. "They did everything they were asked to do."
The celebration itself
By 10:25 a.m., 120 members of the class had taken their seats front and center, near the altar. The diplomas, in green folders, were stacked on a Germantown High School-decorated table.
Greaves congratulated the students with whom he worked for a year, and urged them to stare down any challenges life may send their way.
"Go out," he said, "and do good deeds."
Mullen then spoke to institutional traditions, including how female students sat inside a ring of male students at all school events because "our men protect our women, and that is a bit of [GHS] institutional history that we will be losing today."
"This is more than just a graduation," she told the packed nave and balcony. "You are history and herstory. There will never be another graduating class at Germantown High School. This is it, as far as we know. Thank you, thank you, thank you for allowing me to serve you for four years. You have made me proud."
From there, Dametria Williams gave a valedictory address that ended with the line, "Welcome to the final graduation of Germantown High School, Class of 2013."
Hers was followed by a keynote address from Bright Hope Baptist Church Rev. Dr. Kevin R. Johnson that chided politicians – from governor to mayor – and School Reform Commission members who "were supposed to stand up for you and the teachers, but did not."
"Even though Germantown High School is closing, you're still going to flap your wings," he said. "Greatness never stops at a closed door. It looks for an open one. Stand up and flap your wings."
Diplomas and an exit
There was song.
There was dance.
And, as the Class of 2013 was called to the front to get their diplomas from a receiving line of school officials – for community trivia's sake, Devin Dasher was the last student to ever receive a diploma at a GHS commencement ceremony – there were screams and cheers of joy.
Few, if any, tears were shed for an issue that had consumed the GHS community since winter.
After the graduates marched out of the church to the strains of "Hail Alma Mater," the joy of accomplishment filled the air and not, as Greaves would say, the mourning of a funeral.
A father-son moment
As photo time commenced, Stacey Lane stood by New Covenant's front door.
On his head was the black cap that symbolized his son, Corey Khalil Lane, was a high school graduate bound for Elizabeth City State University in North Carolina.
Stacey Lane, an Olney High grad, spoke as most parents of Germantown High School's Class of '13 did.
He boasted of the personal pride implicit in having his son achieve goals that he himself achieved as a youth.
Then, he brought his own family past into the present and, ideally, beyond.
"My mom stopped me right after I graduated and gave me one of the best kisses and hugs imaginable," he said. "I still remember it vividly to this day. That's what I'm waiting right here to do for my son so maybe one day, he will too."