All 128 members of the Havre de Grace High School Class of 2015 were celebrated during the 128th annual commencement Thursday evening, but one graduate received a special recognition because of how he has overcome adversity and inspired his classmates.
Just before the diplomas were handed to each graduate, Principal Jim Reynolds honored 18-year-old Asa Cromwell Jr., whom Reynolds called "an inspiration to the Class of 2015."
Asa lives in Havre de Grace, and next year he will be part of Harford County Public Schools' Future Link program for students with special needs who have completed high school, according to his mother.
He has muscular dystrophy, and has been confined to a wheelchair since he was about 9 years old. He sat in his wheelchair, wearing a maroon cap and gown, with his classmates on stage in the Havre de Grace High School auditorium.
"This student has meant a lot to our school, and our staff and our students,' Reynolds said.
Asa's classmates and members of the audience gave him a standing ovation.
Asa gathered with his classmates, family and HHS teachers and staff who have supported him during his time in school.
"He's always been positive and upbeat," Reynolds said when asked what made Asa an inspiring student.
The principal said Asa has been an active participant in school life, including playing interscholastic sports with other students with special needs.
"Even though he's confined to a wheelchair, he always gets the most out of his abilities," Reynolds said.
Asa's mother, Melena Hamm, said her son has lived with muscular dystrophy since he was 9 or 10 years old.
"It's moving," she said of Reynolds' tribute. "It's so nice to have the whole school behind Asa at that special moment of his life."
She said Asa is the third generation of his family to attend Havre de Grace High. She graduated in 1990, and her mother and father also graduated from the school.
"The school is great with everything, with all the faculty and staff helping him," Hamm said.
She said her son "has had a lot of obstacles to overcome" with his disability.
"He just has a positive attitude, and he gets through every day with a smile on his face, and he just has this aura about him," Hamm said.
She said her son has also worked in the Havre de Grace mayor's office for the past two years, performing clerical duties for former Mayor Wayne Dougherty and current Mayor Bill Martin, who was elected last month and was among the guest speakers at Thursday's commencement.
Asa called the graduation "very awesome."
"Hard work pays off," he said.
In addition to the tribute to Asa, the HHS Class of 2015 – which Reynolds said has earned $2.7 million in scholarships – heard words of wisdom from senior class President Emilee Bubb and valedictorian Cassandra Valcourt.
Emilee talked about entering HHS on the first day of her freshman year in the new environment of high school, and taking the leap into a new challenge, despite not feeling ready for it.
"Life isn't always about being set," she said.
Emilee challenged her fellow seniors to "embrace the different things we will encounter."
She also thanked the parents of the graduates.
"We would not be sitting up on stage tonight, in our maroon and white, without your love and support," she said.
Cassandra, who gave a brief valedictory speech, reminded her classmates that "with open mind and a positive attitude, anything is possible to achieve."
Harford County Board of Education member Thomas Fitzpatrick, Del. Mary Ann Lisanti, County Councilman Curtis Beulah and Martin also spoke.
"This is a community," Fitzpatrick said of Havre de Grace. "This is a community school, and whether a new building or an old building, it will always be a community school."
Martin, who is also a history teacher at Aberdeen Middle School, directed the bulk of his speech to "the C students."
"Congratulations, because you managed to handle adversity and still graduate," he said of those who struggled academically.
He talked about his experience finishing high school with a 1.8 grade point average and having to complete his final math credit in summer school.
He stressed that, whether one is an A, B or C student in high school, the grades alone do not determine a person's future.
"Whether you got straight As or straight Cs, the world is still ahead of you," Martin said.
Reynolds also acknowledged HHS' departing school resource officer, Havre de Grace Police Ofc. Daniel Petz, who is being promoted to corporal and will be leaving the school.
"We would like to thank Officer Petz for all he has done for the school, and he will be missed," Reynolds said.
The ecstatic graduates cheered and sprayed Silly String in the air at the end of the ceremony. They hugged each other and their relatives outside the auditorium.
Andrew Gill, 17, of Darlington, embraced his family members.
"It felt good," he said of graduating. "It felt very good."
Andrew said he plans to look for a job after high school.
Gabriella Hall, 17, of Havre de Grace, said she plans to study nursing at Harford Community College. She said graduation felt exciting, "but scary at the same time."
English teacher Jennifer Ball, who is also a faculty adviser for the drama club, talked with graduate Joy Mullins, 17, of Havre de Grace, after the ceremony.
Joy said she plans to study business at HCC next year.
"I'm going to miss her a lot," Ball said. "I don't know who's going to be the stage manager for the fall play."
Ball said she has known Joy through sports and drama activities, and she had her in class for the first time this year.