With a host of local, state and national accolades, the 304 members of Aberdeen High School's 108th graduating class are poised for success, Principal Michael O'Brien said.
"I could not be more proud of you," O'Brien told the senior class as they sat in their bright blue caps and gowns at Harford Community College's APG Federal Credit Union, ready to graduate early Tuesday afternoon.
The class brought "national recognition" to the school by earning a silver medal in the U.S. News & World Report's high school rankings this year and being one of three Maryland schools to be named a "Beating the Odds" school by Newsweek magazine.
"Truly, our vision to help all students who want to move on and continue their education," O'Brien said. "Truly, it does not matter the color of your skin, it does not matter how much money your parents make, it does not matter any other demographic factor. What matters is your drive..."
The senior class has the highest number of students moving on to higher education in Aberdeen High School history, with 90 percent planning to attend college, trade school, community college or the military, O'Brien said.
The class is also the first to wear single-color caps and gowns, breaking a long tradition of girls wearing gold and boys wearing blue. Other students held floral arches, with gold and blue garlands, over the seniors as they entered the arena in pairs.
O'Brien asked graduates of the eighth class of the Science and Mathematics Academy and the first class of the Project Lead the Way Engineering Program to stand up, as well as members of honor societies, Maryland State Scholars, all those taking Advanced Placement classes or entering the military, getting a rousing round of applause from the audience.
Besides school officials, special guests on the stage included Aberdeen Test Center commander Col. Morris Bodrick, Aberdeen Mayor Patrick McGrady and city councilmen Melvin Taylor and Tim Lindecamp, the latter who is the school's athletic director and baseball coach.
Student speakers Krystal McCaffity and Sarah Lilley told their classmates, families and friends that attending Aberdeen was a special experience.
"Today is not only about endings, it is also about beginnings," McCaffity said, noting she saw a roomful of dancers, entrepreneurs, musicians, teachers, scientists, photographers and much more.
"We have so much potential to make a difference in this world today," McCaffity said. "Of course, we could not have made it to this moment alone."
She thanked teachers, coaches and staff members who went above and beyond to help students.
"Yes, it is your job to do so, but you went out of your way to explain assignments more than once when we weren't paying attention" or spent extra time on assignments instead of being home with family, she said.
"Don't be the person who stands on the sidelines and does nothing. Be the person that makes a difference," she said.
Lilley said it was hard to come to Aberdeen after moving across the country before ninth grade, when her father was stationed at Aberdeen Proving Ground.
"I thought my situation was the worst one imaginable," she said, recalling how she sat alone until eventually she asked a girl in her choir class if she could sit with her.
"This was an important time in our life. Whether we like to admit it or not, high school made us who we are," she said.
A featured faculty speaker, English teacher Susan Burnett urged students to adopt a philosophy of kindness and "fight against a culture of meanness."
When she was coming to Aberdeen, she was told to "toughen up" because "our kids see kindness as a weakness."
"I decided I would not, I could not, change, and you know what? Ultimately, I didn't have to, because [that advisor] did not know our kids," Burnett said, getting a loud burst of applause. "I continued to act with kindness and I have lasted here 12 years."
Besides diplomas and other achievements, "your legacy must also be in a life lived with compassion and empathy, fair play, respect," she said.
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Students like Brionna Jackson said before the ceremony they were enthusiastic about their time at Aberdeen as well as about their futures.
"I will remember all the teachers that mentored me when I didn't think I was going to make it, just always the gratitude and all the people that were patient with me," Jackson, who will attend Harford Community College to study medical assisting, said.
"High school was a great experience. The thing about Aberdeen is, they teach you, they get you ready for college. Now I feel I am really ready, mentally and physically prepared," she said.
Kindall Houston, whose military family has moved regularly, said that "out of all four high schools that I have been to, this was the best one."
Mekhi Willis, who plans to study pre-law and become a lawyer, said graduation means "a new life, a new beginning."
Alex Jones and Madelyn Brainard said they are part of a tight-knit group of friends. Although Jones is going to Indiana's Purdue University to study mechanical engineering and Brainard will head to West Virginia University to study sports and exercise psychology with a pre-med track, they said they definitely plan to stay in touch.
"We are like sisters, like family. I made a lot of good friends," Jones said about high school. Brainard added: "It's a small group of friends and we hang out with them all the time."