The eight graduates of Harford County's alternative education program only had to walk a few feet across the stage to get their diplomas, but those few steps were actually the end of a long journey.
The 8th annual commencement at Aberdeen's Center for Educational Opportunity brought out families, friends and teachers excited to watch members of the class of 2013 make their way into the world.
The school was technically graduating 14 students, but only eight were actually walking across the stage, for a variety of personal circumstances, including some choosing to graduate with the class at their home high school.
For those who were walking Friday, it was a proud moment.
Kenoshia Chase, who has been at the school for about half a year, said the journey to education seemed long and out of reach.
Having watched those around her drop out and not pursue their dreams, she never thought she would finish high school.
"The road to graduation is a long and bumpy road filled with many unexpected twists and turns," she told the audience. "High school is a big move for everyone, and that's when I started getting in trouble, getting in fights, doing all the things I knew I shouldn't be doing."
Eventually Chase, who was later awarded the Emily Bosley Memorial Scholarship, said she realized she could not continue going down that path.
"I have grown up since then," she said. "We made it to the end and now we can go on to bigger and better things in life."
"To those who said we never could make it, well, we just proved you wrong," she added.
Students waiting around the school, some in their caps and gowns, before the ceremony said they were looking forward to the big moment.
"It's exciting and it's a relief," Nicholas Lynch said. "It's like a giant weight has been lifted off my shoulders."
He said he had only been at the alternative school for one quarter and wished he had put more effort into it. Nevertheless, Lynch plans to start attending Harford Community College and pursue landscaping, although he might switch to engineering.
"I wish I had tried harder," he said about his time in high school. "I wish I had given it my all."
Siedah Watkins, meanwhile, said her time at alternative education was well spent.
"I am happy I finally finished," she said, explaining she has been at the school since 2012.
"I have changed a lot. I really have changed," Watkins said thoughtfully. "It was a very good experience, and the teachers really care, if you are willing to let them."
Watkins plans to major in art at Harford Community College.
Guest speakers told graduates they had the power to achieve their dreams.
Carol Frontera, president of the Albert P. Close Foundation, which had recently given grants to the school, said she was "impressed" by the students' ability to overcome obstacles "most of us can not imagine."
"Embrace your future. Imagine, create and dream," she told them.
School board member Arthur Kaff gave his first graduation speech, telling students he went to seven different schools growing up and also faced challenges there.
"There is no question in my mind that you can succeed once you have succeeded here," he said.
Principal Michael Thatcher told students they have "weathered all of the storms" by making it through high school and wanted them to remember the importance of discipline and building relationships.
"Using self-discipline to make positive choices can be extremely liberating," Thatcher said.
Also, "you all have certainly learned how to get along with lots of different people while attending school. This networking ability will help you advance in your career and learn new skills."
Thatcher told the graduates he is proud of them.
"I want each of you to know that I have faith in you," he said. "Each of you is special and I want you to know that as your principal, I am proud of your accomplishments."Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun