BRIDGEWATER — It’s not every graduation ceremony that students are told to take out their phones.
It’s also not every graduation ceremony that has beach balls and blow-up animals erupt from the crowd of graduates between speakers.
But both took place at the commencement of Turner Ashby High School's Class of 2019 at the school’s Sam Ritchie Stadium Saturday morning. Over 230 students earned diplomas from the school this year, said Principal Phil Judd.
The ceremony included a slew of speakers to celebrate the occasion, but the Turner Ashby family also remembered those they lost along the journey as the morning’s overcast skies withheld rain.
Gabe Chester was a freshman at Turner Ashby when he died in 2016 due to a heart condition. In his memory, half the leftover class funds will be donated to Camp Holiday Trails, a camp for those with medical needs.
The student association donated the other half of the funds to the J. Young Memorial Scholarship, which will be for a Rockingham County Public Schools senior, with preference given to a Turner Ashby graduate.
Student speaker Aaron Young spoke about how the Turner Ashby community supported him after the sudden loss of his father, J. Young, in March, whom the scholarship is named after.
“I knew that I could come to [Turner Ashby] happy or sad, ready to have a good day or a bad day,” he said. “And I always knew that this community and this school had my back.”
Young recalled the support from the Turner Ashby football team before his father’s funeral service.
“I specifically remember walking into the room where the funeral was held and seeing all my teammates in their jerseys lined up along the walls like bouncers,” he said.
The other student speaker, Elizabeth Kreps, talked about the difficulty of saying goodbye to such a close community and how so many people contributed to their success.
“We have to say goodbye to some of the best friends and teachers we’ve ever had,” she said.
Turner Ashby graduate and Rockingham County Supervisor Sallie Wolfe-Garrison gave the address for the ceremony.
During the beginning part of her speech, Wolfe-Garrison implored the students to take out their phones and place them under their chairs.
She went on to speak about how the students have impacted each others’ lives to great extents and they together add to the “puzzle” that makes up Turner Ashby High School.
Then, she asked the students to take out their phones again.
“Take this last opportunity to radiate joy, memorialize the impact that each of you have had on one another and capture in just a few, quick photos the individual pieces around you that make up your 2019 puzzle,” she said.
One of the pieces of the Turner Ashby puzzle is William Bailey.
Bailey went into the school not knowing what he wanted to do, but leaving confident in his passion for ecology, the study of organisms and the environment.
With his graduation cap adorned with fake leaves, he thanked Julie Ritchie and Codi Jo Wheelbarger, science and ecology teachers, respectively, for their impact on helping him find his “calling.”
Bailey will be going to Blue Ridge Community College this fall to pursue ecology.
Another future student of BRCC and now-graduate of Turner Ashby is Monserrat Gomez Sanchez.
Sanchez also spoke well of the teachers at Turner Ashby, specifically mentioning Joni Lam, of the family and consumer sciences department.
Prom was her most memorable moment at Turner Ashby, she said.
And Sanchez wasn’t the only one to talk prom at graduation.
Graduation “felt like prom,” said Hillary Mariam Kisakye Rogers. “You get ready, you spend all day getting ready and then you get to the dance and you’re like ‘Oh, we’re here.’”
“And then you dance,” she said.
Rogers moved from Uganda in 2016, the flag of the African nation adorning her cap, and spent only three years at Turner Ashby.
Turner Ashby is much larger than the school she was previously enrolled in while in Uganda, she said.
“It took me like two months to know everyone,” she said. “It’s quite different.”
Now, many for those people she knows will be continuing their education or joining the workforce, the military or service programs.
Rogers is among those, like Bailey and Sanchez, to continue her education, though she’s having trouble picking between Liberty University and Mary Baldwin University.
Young said that as the graduates go on to new and difficult places, there will always be support from the Turner Ashby “family.”
“I want all of you to know, we have each other, we have this staff and we have this community,” he said. “I’m not just saying this — I’ve lived through this; I am living through this.”