Less than a month before his high school graduation, Shay Cope’s home and school were destroyed, his father’s business was ruined and his girlfriend’s best friend — his classmate — died in April’s tornadoes.
But as the Ringgold High School senior graduated Friday night he wasn’t sad, angry or bitter about his losses. He was happy he got the chance to finish school.
“To see all my friends and make sure they’re all safe, it was good to see everybody’s all right,” he said standing in McKenzie Arena among 210 other blue-cap-and-gown-clad Tigers. “It’s a blessing.”
Cope’s family is staying with friends while they rebuild their home and business and while Cope and the rest of Ringgold’s students finished their last three weeks of classes at Heritage High School.
The experience hasn’t been easy, but several at the ceremony said students rarely let circumstances bring them down.
“The students have been the examples for the adults,” Catoosa County Schools Superintendent Denia Reese said. “They did everything we’ve asked them to do and they never complained.”
As the students stood in a hot room, many of them sweating under their heavy robes and hats, Ringgold’s graduating class still didn’t complain. Some were nervous, others emotional, but all excited for the culmination of their high school careers.
“It’s been really hectic and confusing,” senior class Vice President Payne Richmond said just before walking out in front of the hundreds of parents, family, friends and community members who packed the arena. “It’s kind of bittersweet.”
That sentiment seemed representative of the feelings of most in the audience as thoughts of the tornadoes wove themselves throughout the ceremony.
“Our class, the class of 2011, will always be seen as the class that adapted,” senior class Secretary Hannah Clark said to her class in a welcoming address. “Don’t let go of the lessons you have learned.”
Reese said she certainly won’t forget what she’s learned from the class. As she stood on stage after ceremonies were over, one student ran up, hugged and swung her around, thanking her for her help through the years.
“It’s hard to see them leave,” she said. “This will always be a class that we’ll be close to and remember.”
Just before Ringgold’s graduation, “American Idol” runner-up Lauren Alaina Suddeth visited McKenzie Arena for the graduation of her brother from Lakeview-Fort Oglethorpe High School.