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Embracing the future: Missoula public high school students march, listen, celebrate through graduation
Sentinel High School's 2008 graduating class celebrates its achievement Saturday afternoon at the Adams Center in Missoula.

Much has changed since 1886 when Missoula handed out sheepskins at the city's first public high school

graduation.

But the traditional themes of hope, determination and anxiety among adolescents making the transition to adulthood held true Saturday at the graduation ceremonies of Missoula's three public high schools.

Senior class leaders and commencement speakers urged the 947 graduates to cherish their school memories and to be of good use to society as they move on to college, work, the military in the next stage of their lives.

Linda Smith, a Sentinel High School teacher who gave her school's commencement address, told seniors the fundamental lessons - about kindness, sharing, respect, love and other mainstays - they learned in kindergarten would guide them on their journey.

"You've accomplished much" in the past four years in the classroom, extracurricular activities and community, Smith said. "Now, you go on."

The daylong ceremonies at the University of Montana's Adams Center started at 10 a.m. when the Hellgate High School band struck up "Pomp and Circumstance."

Hundreds of relatives, friends and other well-wishers cheered as 304 Hellgate seniors, wearing red caps and gowns, entered the arena through a gantlet formed by their teachers and staff.

After the national anthem, Hellgate's seven valedictorians gave brief speeches expressing wonder at how quickly time passes, optimism about the future and a pledge to make the world a better place.

They quoted familiar passages from Dr. Seuss, William Shakespeare and John Lennon in making their points.

"We've all been looking forward to this day for a long time," Jacob Roske said. "Wherever life takes you, we'll always remember Hellgate."

Joel Dalenberg advised his classmates to "show up, be determined, be stubborn and optimistic" - and to vote for Democratic Sen. Barack Obama for president, an endorsement that drew mostly cheers and a few boos.

Jim Kelly, a retired Hellgate teacher who delivered his school's commencement address, used humor and old sayings in his message.

"I could have been a Rhodes Scholar - except for my grades," he said, chuckling.

Like other speakers, Kelly said the students couldn't have succeeded without support from parents, friends, teachers, staff and others.

He cited Abraham Lincoln's many personal and professional setbacks before he finally became president as an example of the perseverance that graduating seniors will need to succeed.

Kelly also offered words of folksy wisdom for the students to live by, such as: "Always keep your words soft and sweet - in case you have to eat them."

Next up were Sentinel High School's 270 graduating seniors, wearing purple gowns and mortar boards. They included nine valedictorians.

In her commencement address, Smith talked of the life rules taught in kindergarten.

Don't hit people. Put things back where you found them. Clean up your messes. Apologize. Don't take what isn't yours. Wash your hands. Stick together and hold hands when you cross traffic.

"Draw, sing, paint, dance, work, nap, play," she said, drawing nods from around the crowd.

Hannah Keane, the class president, echoed all the day's graduates when she thanked parents, teachers, staff and classmates for helping them to earn a diploma, overcoming everything from "freshman immaturity to senioritis."

Jim Clark, Missoula's outgoing superintendent, thanked the community for its support and welcomed his successor, Alexander Apostle, the incoming superintendent.

The day's final ceremony featured the Big Sky High School's 330 graduating seniors, clad in blue caps and gowns. They included seven valedictorians.

Michael Beers, a Missoula comedian, gave the commencement address, telling the students that perseverance, self-confidence and humor were among the keys to success.

He talked about his high school years and overcoming self-doubt stemming from his physical disabilities.

"That stupid piece of paper has been bossing you around for 12 years," he said, referring to the demands of earning a diploma. "Now you can tell it what you're going to do with the rest of your life."

Alla Kirilovich, the class president, delivered the closing remarks. A native of Belarus, she quoted Yogi Berra, the former baseball player noted for his malapropisms, telling her classmates that "when they get to a fork in the road, take it."

Throughout the day, the same scene played out over and over as the three graduating classes came and went, a familiar rite of spring, the schools' ceremonies differentiated only by the different colors of their caps, gowns and tassels.

The seniors came to the stage, an alphabetical procession by last names, grasping their diplomas, taking in the cheers, turning their tassels with a look of relief and happiness caught in the flashes of cameras.

There were high-fives, hugs, air-horn blasts, a few fistfuls of confetti and the traditional toss of caps into the air. Then they all filed outside for the rest of their lives.

Tessa Budny, who wore academic and drama honor cords around her neck, will attend the Art Institute of Seattle. She plans to study photography.

"I'm relieved," she said, expressing a common sentiment among all graduates. "I'm scared, but I'm really ready to go on."

Courtney Rayfield was among several Big Sky students who earned an Eagle Medallion, which recognizes a combination of academic, extracurricular and community achievements. She will attend UM, where she plans to study sports medicine.

"I feel - I don't know how I feel right now," she said. "I'm excited, happy, a little sad. It's weird. Like something's ended, but it's just beginning, too."

Lorilee Evans-Lynn, who teaches American studies and creative writing and is an advisor for Big Sky's literary magazine, saw about 85 of her students receive their diplomas. She's known many of them since they were five years old.

"It's incredibly bittersweet," she said. "We've spent so much time together and now they're leaving. I'm elated and sad, too."

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