Southwestern High School’s gym was packed wall to wall with families and friends eager see their special senior cross the stage toward that diploma.
A total of 296 new graduates made that trek Friday night as the school hosted the commencement ceremony for the Class of 2019.
The graduation had its share of moments both irreverent — such as when the seniors took to tossing beach balls around — to genuinely moving — leading the audience in a standing ovation for classmate Alexander Hunley as he took his diploma from Pulaski County Schools Superintendent Patrick Richardson.
But that’s just how this class rolled — particularly evidenced by the address from Senior Class President Jon Parker Waddle.
“I guess now’s a bad time to tell you I don’t have a speech,” Waddle opened before launching into one that quoted Alice in Chains’ “No Excuses” as well as paid tribute to Southwestern’s “lunch ladies.”
“To me this class is a bold representation of how society should be,” he said more seriously. “These graduates are truly ready, and I know that wholeheartedly that one day, they’ll rule the world.”
Waddle said he and his classmates learned from attending Southwestern the qualities that “help shape the best of times and the best of human beings. I’ve witnessed genuine kindness, intellect, passion and at times, courage — all exhibited flawlessly among all of you.”
The class, Waddle continued, had displayed a “stick- together” attitude that should hold no matter the directions the future leads them. “Although we may drift apart, our hearts will stay tied together through all of this. We cannot let ourselves become strangers,” he said before closing with a “Southwestern Forever.”
The moment was particularly bittersweet for two of Southwestern’s administrators. Assistant Principal Tony Cress, himself an Air Force veteran, intro- duced his son Sawyer Cress, one of 10 graduates who have enlisted in the United States Army, Navy, Marine Corps or Army National Guard.
“To you who have elected to serve our country in military service, we owe a debt of gratitude,” Cress said.
Principal Danita Ellis briefly relinquished her role of reading out the names of seniors as they crossed the stage so that she could be on the other side to hand a diploma to her granddaughter Haley Ellis. In addressing the class as a whole, she noted how full her heart was.
“I’m so very proud of how hard all 296 of you have worked throughout your high school career,” the principal said. “It’s been a daily honor and inspiration for me to watch you grow and seek out opportunities for your future.”
Principal Ellis noted that the Class of 2019 topped last year’s record for the most Advanced Diploma recipients of any graduating class from Southwestern. The record was 95 and now stands at 108. To earn the Advanced Diploma, students must complete the pre- college curriculum, earn 29 credits, and complete six Advanced Placement or dual-credit courses in math, science, English, social studies, world language and an elective.
The Class of 2019 also had 16 seniors graduate with High Distinction and at least a 4.0 GPA. Another 62 were honored for having at least a 3.8 GPA. As Senior Guidance Counselor John Hargis noted in present- ing scholarship recipients, members of the Class of 2019 have accepted $3,475,000 in academic and athletic scholarships — having been offered a total of $5,335,600.