"To no one is tomorrow guaranteed."
Nobody knows the meaning of these words better than their speaker, Eric Jones. When he was 15, Jones was involved in a horrific motorcycle accident and was pronounced dead on the scene.
He told a rapt audience at Hixson High School's 2013 graduation that, by all rights, he shouldn't have survived.
"But I stand here before you, at 18 years of age and 100 percent recovered," he said.
Jones' near-death experience taught him to seize every opportunity because it "may only come by once," he said.
And as hundreds of grads spilled out onto the steps of Chattanooga's Memorial Auditorium, the sense of possibility was almost tangible.
Madison Bennett will follow in her mother's footsteps and begin a nursing program at Chattanooga State Community College in the fall.
Bennett's parents are convinced she has what it takes to succeed.
"We're very proud of Madison," said Rita Maxwell, her mother. "She's a very bright girl."
And as beaming parents stood by, teenagers grinned for the cameras, clutching clusters of balloons and colorful bouquets. All were vibrantly aware that they were now free to do anything.
"It is time for us to dream big and reach for the stars," said senior class Vice President Brittany Harris.
Across the city, 2,656 Hamilton County seniors graduated from high school this weekend from 17 schools. The ceremonies were divided between Friday and Saturday to accommodate the many alma maters and took place at the Tivoli Theatre, Memorial Auditorium and McKenzie Arena.
Brainerd and Hixson high school graduations were back to back Saturday. As Brainerd students celebrated on the sidewalks, startling in their eye-popping red robes, Hixson students and their families slipped up the stairs and into the auditorium.
Foreshadowing Jones' words, which would be spoken on stage just half an hour later, Brainerd High School salutatorian Torrey Sales said he was looking forward to meeting life's possibilities head-on.
"It's very exciting," he said. "We're starting out our journey to find ourselves and be tomorrow's leaders."
Contact staff writer Lindsay Burkholder at 423-757-6592 or firstname.lastname@example.org.