Wednesday was a day for the members of C. Milton Wright High School's Class of 2014 to smile and celebrate their graduation, but it was also a day to remember a classmate who is no longer with them.
Taylor K. Duff, who would have graduated this year, died in January 2013 after a lengthy battle with brain cancer, according to her obituary. She was 16 years old.
Her friends knew her as "T.K.," and many graduates wore wristbands and ribbons in Taylor's honor during the ceremony, which was held in the APG Federal Credit Union Arena at Harford Community College.
Through their senior class gift, a memorial garden and bench to be installed on the Bel Air campus, the more than 380-member Class of 2014 has also ensured Taylor will be known to future C. Milton Wright students.
Eliese Thrush, vice president of the senior class, announced the gift during the ceremony.
She described Taylor as having "a beaming smile and a bubbly laugh" and said Taylor lived "with passion and optimistic anticipation of what is to come."
Eliese said Taylor was looking down at her classmates.
"Thank you Taylor for the many ways in which you blessed and enriched our lives," Eliese said.
Class president Natalie Hutcheson gave welcoming remarks.
"This is the day we say 'goodbye,' " she said. "We say 'goodbye' to the way of life we've known for the past 13 years."
Natalie reminisced on the Class of 2014's accomplishments in the classroom, in the arts and on the athletic field – the athletic accomplishments included the school's first state championship in field hockey this spring.
She recalled when the seniors wore shirts emblazoned with the mascots of the colleges and universities they plan to attend during the upcoming school year.
Natalie noted that, no matter what mascot they adopted, the members of the Class of 2014 will "always remember where we came from and what our roots are."
Principal Marlene Molter encouraged the graduates to adopt the technique of "reflection" in their daily lives – she said she works with C. Milton Wright faculty members on similar reflection exercises.
Molter described it as "looking not so much at yourself, but what you've done."
"In my opinion, reflection is the most valuable skill any person can have and utilize," she said.
Valedictorian Leah Valdes talked about not taking yourself too seriously, a message she took to heart from the early 1980s hit song "Safety Dance," by Men Without Hats.
The song's opening lines state: "We can dance if we want to/We can leave your friends behind/'Cause your friends don't dance and if they don't dance/Well, they're no friends of mine."
"I want to be able to achieve happiness by dancing through life," Leah said.
She spoke about her friends' and classmates' desires to be top achievers, to the point that they will take on activities they do not enjoy, simply to have another achievement.
Leah said the graduates can find true happiness and success by finding the things they love and doing them, rather than obsessively working to meet others' expectations of success.
"So do what you love, and be who you are, and even though you might not win the competition you'll find real success," she said.
Graduates, parents react
The graduates' friends and family members cheered wildly and snapped photos as each graduate's name was called to receive his or her diploma.
Chuck Tillman III and his daughter, Emma, 20, cheered as Charles "Chaz" Tillman IV's name was called.
Tillman said his son struggled in the beginning of high school, but had a 4.0 grade point average his last semester, "which is a great accomplishment for him."
He said his son has enrolled in Harford Community College.
"He's starting out on the right foot," Tillman said.
Emma Tillman reflected on how her younger brother is growing up.
"It's so hard, because he's not my little baby brother anymore," she said.
Elena Pettiford, 17, and her mother, Yolanda, said graduation their family had moved around the country as Elena was growing up – her father was in the active-duty Army and recently retired.
Elena was able to enjoy four years at C. Milton Wright with her father being stationed at Aberdeen Proving Ground, however.
"She's done a wonderful job and she's come into a new community and just been able to excel and make this her home," Yolanda Pettiford said.
In the fall, Elena will attend Union College in Schenectady, N.Y., where she plans to study biology.
"I'm really excited that I'm able to continue my education, she said. "It's been a really great experience."
She said she and her CMW classmates "had great teachers who loved their jobs."
Remarks from adult leaders
As is customary for high school graduations in Harford County, local elected and appointed officials shared some of their lives' wisdom with the graduates Wednesday.
School board member Arthur Kaff urged the graduates to stay true to their hopes and dreams.
"Many of those who succeed and achieve are those who never give up and never stop trying, and that, in my opinion, is a true spirit of a mustang," he said, invoking the school mascot.
State Sen. Barry Glassman noted local officials are working to build a "knowledge-based economy" in Harford County, and he encouraged the graduates to become part of their home community.
"God bless you, thank your mom and dad, and we wish you the best of luck," he told the graduates. "Be safe over the summer."
State Del. Donna Stifler reflected on how this year is the last for her to address high school graduates as a state legislator. She announced last fall that she would step down when her term ends in 2015 because of health issues.
Stifler talked about the "seasons" that come and go during life, and that a person can face hard times during the winters of his or her life and good times during the spring of his or her life.
"The bad news is that every season will end," she said. "The good news is that every season will end."
She noted "that's never going to change, but what can change is your attitude" during a particular season.
County Councilman Richard Slutzky spoke about the meaning behind the word "choices."
"Your success and happiness will depend on the choices that you make," he said.
Councilman Jim McMahan told the graduates he had a gift for them. He picked up a bag, pretended to rummage through it, and then threw what appeared to be nothing but air toward the graduates' outstretched hands.
"Did you get it?" he asked. "That was the future; please take care of it."