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Willard Alternative School puzzled Cameron Wilkes at first.

“All these people were so nice to me. And I had no idea why,” he said during his graduation speech last Thursday. Chuckles came from many in the crowd who understood his initial disorientation upon arriving at Missoula’s alternative high school.

“Is there something they wanted?” he wondered. “Did they want my coat?”

He held out the left side of his plain, red jacket.

Laughter rolled across the commons where Willard students, staff, teachers, family and friends gathered for the first of three graduation ceremonies this year. Students must complete the same course requirements as other Missoula schools, but study in a trimester schedule and negotiate with teachers to personalize assignments. All staff insist on using first names. Graduates are celebrated at the end of every trimester, each stepping to a lectern to talk about their time at Willard and hopes for the future.

Last week, departing teens thanked the school for pushing them to persevere even when they were too tired, beaten down or uninspired to do so alone.

Their school, the graduates said, is unlike any other. It’s a little tough to pin down what makes Willard exceptional, other than to say it’s the people. Teachers anchor the creative and accepting culture, while the passions and interests of students shape the atmosphere in new ways each year.

“Willard is the only school in Missoula where you are allowed to truly express and are pushed to express who you really are. It is without the judgment of teachers or students, and that’s the way it should be," Matilda "Tilly" Kushner said. "At Willard, the teachers treat you like a thinking adult with life potential.”

“Without them, I wouldn’t be here,” Andrew Lance said. “They helped me through a lot.”

He turned to shake the hand of Principal Kevin Ritchlin who stood nearby. Gesturing back toward his classmates, he said, “This school wouldn’t be what it is without you guys.”

The first time Cameron heard a Willard graduation speech last year, he started thinking about what to say. In part, he described his personal transformation and the achievements he had never before thought possible.

“I was a quiet, small individual that was very depressed, all this sad stuff,” he said. “I could say I have friends now.”

The crowd cheered. “I’m not done,” Cameron said, playfully. “I’m almost done. I swear.”

When the laughter subsided, he continued seriously.

“If I hadn’t come here, if I hadn’t come to Willard, I don’t think I would’ve graduated.”

It is a thought shared by many graduates.

“I dropped out of school four or five times and missed a year and a half during that time…," said Faith Albitre. "School has always been a struggle for me academically. I never cared to fit in at any of the 10 different schools that I’ve been to. Although I didn’t care to fit in here, I found myself changing for the better each year. And I was never judged.”

Tilly said “two minutes is not nearly enough time” to properly thank all the teachers and staff who helped her reach graduation, apologizing to classmates for her long speech. Several people held up cell phones to record her words. Many cried and some laughed. All listened.

“During my time here, I have experienced the toughest moments of my life and during those challenges I have been taught some very important lessons. … I’ve learned that when you struggle and face challenges you can allow those challenges to turn you bitter or you can take the pain you endure and turn it into something beautiful,” she said. “For me, quitting is not an option. I’m not saying it hasn’t been tempting to give up on many occasions because, believe me, it has.”

At 14 years old, Matilda was diagnosed with depression and anxiety. She “felt hopeless and as if nothing could fill the deep sadness in my heart.” The people at Willard helped her find a way forward.

“I had never despised myself or my life as much as I did in that year. I truly thought it was going to feel that way forever. I am thankful to say I was very wrong,” she said. “I am now 17 years old and I am so grateful that I stayed alive.”

She has plans, after all.

“I will be moving to Australia in December and will attend the University of Newcastle,” she said. “I will become a teacher, a writer and a Hotshot firefighter.”

Other graduates shared their plans for college, work and future creative projects. Jaia Kattelus spoke about his graduation with some sadness.

“The thing I wanted so bad, and the day I would’ve thought I’d be so delighted by the arrival of, and I am. But at the same time I’m terrified,” he said. “You don’t realize how fast four years can go by.”

His speech ended, but Jaia did not leave the stage quite yet. He turned, raised his phone high and took a selfie with the crowd, his Willard family.

Kevin, the principal, thanked the teens for their kind words about teachers and staff, but said they are not the primary reason students reach graduation. He applauded the students who sometimes “struggled to complete academic work while balancing a job and other difficulties.”

“It always was you and your willingness to be masters of your own destinies,” he said. “So here you are, shining examples of the power of second chances.”

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