School plays and chili cook-offs and Good Shepherd fundraisers. Lively city meetings and Citizen of the Week nominations and rarely wearing blazers. These are a few of my favorite things about being a small-town journalist, but none of that is as sweet as attending end-of-the-year school events such as award ceremonies and graduation.
Last week, I was honored to attend both events at Eureka Springs High School. I watched as students accepted thousands of dollars in scholarships at the senior award ceremony on Friday morning. Some students were recognized for joining the military and others have already accepted jobs in the technical field because of their work with the county-wide C4 program.
I budgeted two hours to photograph the ceremony and talk with the superintendent and principals. Those two hours morphed into four hours before I knew it. One minute I was sitting in the high school auditorium during the awards ceremony and then it was almost 1 p.m.
Have you ever zoned out while driving and arrived home with no recollection of the journey there? That’s how I felt on Friday. I got so caught up in taking photos, chatting with people and scoping out the graduation ceremony set-up that I barely had time to process the photos when I got home.
I must have spent an hour checking out the angles and the optimal lighting in the gym, where graduation was slated to take place the next morning. The Eureka Springs High School graduation was my first major photo assignment and I was nervous, y’all! I was absolutely shaking in my Keds.
Graduation is the biggest, proudest day for so many parents and students in our community. I wanted to do it right. If a small-town journalist does their job right, families have clippings upon clippings to commemorate years gone by. That was all I wanted to accomplish at graduation.
Even with my mind set on work mode, I couldn’t help but get swept away during the graduation ceremony on Saturday morning. I’ve interviewed so many of those seniors over the past seven years. As they said goodbye to high school, I said a silent, bittersweet goodbye to all of them.
The saddest goodbye for the class of 2021, as many of us know, already took place when sophomore Kyle Daugherty and former student George “Buddy” Milawski were killed in a car accident two years ago. Two chairs were designated for them at the graduation ceremony, a stark reminder of young lives cut short. The graduates remembered Buddy and Kyle multiple times during the ceremony.
After everyone collected their diplomas, two graduates accepted diplomas and roses on behalf of Buddy and Kyle. Each boy’s family received the diploma and the rose. Everyone took a moment of silence for the students who should have been graduating and looking toward the future. There wasn’t a dry eye in the house.
It’s never easy to lose a friend, but to lose a friend so young is an entirely different animal. I remember talking with those students after the accident in 2019, hearing all the good things about Buddy and Kyle. Kyle wanted to join the Marines and Buddy loved basketball. Buddy was close with his mother, who bravely honored her son’s life at the graduation ceremony. With loved ones like that, Buddy and Kyle will never be forgotten.
The students accepted their diplomas, turned their tassels and tossed their hats in the air. And just like that, the graduation ceremony was over. On to another year, another graduating class and another new group of first-year students. The cycle is always the same, just with different faces.
And I am so thankful to be the person to tell their stories.