Bob and Maria Gray never imagined that their severely disabled son, Phillip, would live this long - 21 years and counting.
Diagnosed with a progressive form of Down syndrome, their doctors told them to live "day to day with him," Maria Gray said.
But there they were Thursday, proudly watching their son make his way through a graduation processional - in a wheelchair - along with two other students from Cedar Lane School in Columbia.
"We didn't think it was possible," Maria Gray said. "It's a pretty exciting deal. ... It's like any other child. Just because they're a little different, it doesn't mean their feelings are not the same."
Each year, Cedar Lane School - which serves Howard County's severely disabled students ages 3 to 21 - says goodbye to graduates who have reached the maximum enrollment age. Students there have serious physical disabilities, mental retardation, cerebral palsy or autism. Many are in wheelchairs or partially blind or both.
Although most Cedar Lane students will not attend college or start a good-paying job, commencement is a celebration of the graduates' accomplishments at the school and hope for the future.
Each of this year's three graduates will participate in vocational programs for adults with developmental disabilities.
"She's very excited," said Norma Neimiller, whose daughter, Shannon, 21, has been in the care of Cedar Lane for the past eight years. "It's a new beginning."
Neimiller, who lives in Savage with her parents, will spend time at the Center for Social Change in Elkridge, which provides employment services for disabled adults.
This year's graduation also marked the end - as well as a beginning - for the beloved school, which will move to a new, state-of-the-art facility in August. The school building will be connected to Lime Kiln Middle School in Fulton, allowing students of all abilities to interact.
Still, as Superintendent Sydney L. Cousin said at graduation, "It's not the building that makes Cedar Lane a success, but the people."
Tears flowed freely among families and staff members alike. Many consider Cedar Lane a second home or like their extended family.
"Our kids and the parents are actually part of a family," said Cedar Lane Principal Nicholas Girardi. "When our students graduate, we're losing a member of our family. There is an emotional feeling with goodbyes. There's also hope that they're going to be in a good placement."
The audience watched as a slide presentation showed pictures of Phillip Gray, Shadell Henry and Shannon Neimiller as youngsters, with family and friends, in class and at amusement parks.
This year's senior address was a collection of Henry's thoughts, interpreted by Cedar Lane staff members. The message was prerecorded by a staff member and played during the ceremony.
Henry thanked his teachers and his nurse, Ola Bisi, and wished his fellow graduates "the very best in their new school."
Bonnie Trey, Henry's teacher for three years, said Henry recognizes that he is leaving Cedar Lane, a place he has called his school for the past seven years. Bisi and his teachers prepared Henry by telling him about graduation for the past couple of weeks.
"He gets to move on and do some exciting things," said Trey, who escorted Henry through the processional. "But he's going to miss this place."
Trey said she will miss Henry, describing him as a "ladies' man" and a flirt. Henry, 21, who lives in a group home, has been placed at the Arc of Howard County, an agency that provides services for children and adults with developmental disabilities.
Each of the graduates received a Maryland High School Certificate and a plaque. Neimiller also earned an award from Cedar Lane's Parent-Teacher Association for her social skills with staff members and other students.
PTA President Robert Seipel told the crowd that Neimiller "delights in everyone who would listen to her knock-knock jokes, and she would laugh at her punch lines."
Neimiller accepted a plaque from Seipel and waved to her family in the audience.
Born with a genetic disorder called Cri du chat, characterized by a child's cat-like cries, Neimiller's communication skills and behavior have improved during her time at Cedar Lane, said her mother.
The disorder often causes slow growth and mental retardation.
"She's had so many teachers and therapists who've done great things," Norma Neimiller said. "They didn't give up and didn't compare her with other kids. They helped her advance."
For the Grays, Cedar Lane also has been a blessing for their son.
"He loves the school," said Maria Gray. "He's very liked around there. He's always smiling. He's known for that, apparently."
Phillip Gray, who lives with his parents in Ellicott City, has been placed at the Athelas Institute in Columbia, where he will receive vocational and employment services.
As the ceremony closed with another round of "Pomp and Circumstance," Marilyn DeBolt fought hard to hold back her tears. DeBolt, an instructional assistant who has worked with Gray for the past five years, also served as his escort for graduation.
"It's very hard," she said. "We get very close to them and very emotionally attached to them, especially a kid like Phillip. He's a pleasure."