C. Milton Wright High School Principal Michael Thatcher was briefly overcome with emotion Monday as he made his final official remarks to the Class of 2015, his first graduating class as the Bel Air high school's principal.
"It is truly my sincere hope that high school was a time when you were able to spread your wings in a safe and a nurturing environment," he said during the 33rd annual commencement ceremony, this one in the APG Federal Credit Union Arena at Harford Community College.
He also sought to ease the concerns of graduates who dealt with struggles as they worked through four years of high school.
"Have no fear, strength comes from struggle," Thatcher said. "The struggles you have faced in high school will provide you with the courage to face life with confidence. Your parents and teachers have seen this in you. I have seen this in you."
He told the graduates that, while they have only spent one year together, "as a class, you will always be special to me because you, the Class of 2015, will be my first graduating class at C. Milton Wright High School. Thank you for the awesome opportunity, congratulations."
Thatcher, along with members of the Harford County Board of Education and elected Harford County officials, celebrated the 327 members of this year's graduating class.
"You have shown great enthusiasm and spirit," school board member Arthur Kaff said. One of Kaff's children has graduated from CMW and another is a student there.
Del. Susan McComas urged the graduates to cherish their relationships with other people, especially their parents, and she also urged them to use common sense in all areas of their lives.
"That is going to be your gauge, whether the deal is big or small," she said.
Harford County Council President Richard Slutzky spoke to a graduating class that includes his granddaughter, Madyson.
"Failure is not fatal," he advised the graduates.
The graduates also heard from their classmates, including senior class president Kevin Williams, vice president Bernard Chang and valedictorian Ethan Diven.
Williams said his classmates are part of "one of the greatest classes to ever walk the halls of C. Milton Wright. You're a fantastic group of individuals, I love you all!"
Chang said the senior class has raised more than $6,000 toward its class gift to the school, which includes chairs for visitors and dignitaries during school events and banners for light poles on the campus.
"It has been a long and arduous journey, but we can proudly say that we have navigated through this chapter of our lives," he said.
Diven said "the single most important thing" he learned during high school is "if you're going to work, you might as well work hard."
"You see, the thing about falling behind is that it's so much easier than getting ahead," he said. "You always need to remember that in everything that you do."
Loud cheers reverberated in the arena as each graduate's name was called and he or she walked across the stage to receive a diploma.
Mike Gereli, of Bel Air, snapped a picture with his smart phone as his son, Michael, crossed the stage. Gereli said his son plans to attend Harford Community College next year.
"I feel released," he said of seeing his son graduate. "He is 18, and he is good."
Brandon Beard, of Bel Air, watched his grandson, Marques Boyer Jr., get his diploma.
"A lot of people my age, with what I've been through in my life, a lot of them don't live long enough to see their grandchildren walk across a [graduation] stage," Beard said.
The graduates celebrated by flinging beach balls and their caps in the air after all diplomas were given out, and then they gathered with friends and family outside the arena.
Osiah Walker, 18, of Bel Air, will attend Malone University in Canton, Ohio, on a full football scholarship.
He said he was "extremely excited" about graduation.
"I'm sad to see all my friends go, but I'm excited for the future," he said.
Walker said his teachers and "camaraderie" with his fellow students were the best parts of attending C. Milton Wright.
Raven Wells, 18, of Bel Air, who will study communications at the University of Maryland College Park, said she was proud to have graduated.
Her father, William Wells Jr., said he was "very proud."
"I know she worked really hard when she was in high school, and I'm just really proud of her," Wells said.
Jodi Richman, of Bel Air, reflected on seeing her oldest child, Tyler, graduate Monday. Tyler, 17, the oldest of three children, will study atmospheric and oceanic science at the University of Maryland.
"I'm excited for his future, and the next four years are going to be the best four years of his life, and I want him to live every moment," she said.
Tyler's father, Keith, also expressed his excitement.
"I'm excited, very proud of him and looking forward to all that he's going to accomplish moving forward," he said.
Tyler said the commencement was "nerve wracking," but also exciting.
"I made a lot of friends and had a lot of great experiences with them, and I'm going to miss that next year," he said of his time at CMW.
Tyler also praised his teachers, including math teacher Laura Potter, Harford County Public Schools Teacher of the Year for 2015-16.
Tyler said Potter was his calculus teacher.
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"I'd have to say she is definitely the best teacher I've had in high school," Tyler said.