Many members of Patterson Mill High School's Class of 2015 have gone to school together for seven years. That journey formally ended Thursday, as the class walked out of Harford Community College's APG Federal Credit Union Arena with diplomas in hand and high school life behind them.
The graduates seemed more than ready to be done, with many of them looking back confidently on their accomplishments and seeing high school graduation as just the first step in a much bigger adventure.
"This is the smallest accomplishment," Shannon Mister, who was moving on to Community College of Baltimore County, said before the ceremony. "We are off to bigger and better things."
Already a paramedic in Abingdon, Shannon had enrolled in the Harford County Cadet Program for fire and EMS services and said she recommended it for anyone with "even the slightest interest in medicine."
She was standing with two other accomplished seniors who were comparing the pins and accolades on their teal and black gowns.
Hannah Jones served as the student representative on the Harford County Board of Education and was very involved in student government. Jake Nikkila said he had the most wrestling wins in the county and received an Al Cesky Scholarship.
"I am definitely excited for the future," Hannah said, urging other students to "get involved in everything you possibly can and take advantage of everything that comes your way."
She said she is excited to graduate, as "it's been a long time coming."
Isaiah Welch and Joe Hessler also were ready to embrace the future and did not seem nervous.
"It's pretty exciting. It feels surreal," Isaiah, who is set to play lacrosse at North Carolina's Catawba College, said. "New beginnings are always nice."
For him, Patterson Mill meant "a lot of learning experiences."
Joe is headed to Harford Community College to study business management.
"It's exciting to be finished after seven years at this school," he said, having attended high and middle school in the same complex. "I thought they prepared us well for what we have to do in the future."
Principal Sean Abel told the class that "it's been an honor, it's been a pleasure and a privilege" to work with them, adding that their daily interactions "makes me realize I have made the right choice in my life's work."
With a smile, Abel said the Class of 2015 had earned about $4.7 million in scholarships and awards and he would miss the students.
"It's hard for me to know I am not going to get another hug from Gavin Adams," he said, pointing out a particularly hug-loving senior.
Class presidents Emma Metzler and Bailey Breeden used their time on stage to pull out a "selfie stick" and pose for a photo with all their classmates in the background, before joking about which "hashtag" to use for the picture.
"Carry on the lessons you learned as a Husky and carry them into the future, for you will always be a member of the pack," Emma said.
Harford County Board of Education member Alysson Krchnavy, meanwhile, took a different angle on technology. She read a poem called "Look Up," by Gary Turk, which urges people to form real connections instead of looking at their cell phones.
"We edit and exaggerate, we crave adulation, we pretend we don't notice the social isolation," Krchnavy read. "Now the parks are so quiet, it gives me a chill to see no children outside and the swings hanging still. There's no skipping or hopscotch, no church and no steeple, we're a generation of idiots, smart phones and dumb people."
County Councilman Jim McMahan asked all veterans in the audience to stand up, while State Del. Susan McComas said the future facing the graduates will be much harder than the one she faced when graduating 46 years ago.
"We live in challenging times and you are our future," McComas said. "The terrorism we are fighting today is much more difficult to defend against than the 'Red Menace' of the 1960s."
Brennan Traube, the keynote speaker chosen from the senior class, told his classmates "not to dwell in dreams and forget to live."
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He said the class entered high school as "unknown territory," but they overcame the awkwardness and encouraged all of them to "try something new" in the future.