Overall, it wasn’t the best day for wearing dark-blue gowns and caps, but it was just one more test North Surry High School seniors passed with flying colors Saturday when 201 diplomas were conferred.
Mount Airy’s temperature already had hit 80 degrees by the time annual commencement exercises began at 9.m. on the school’s football field with the sun beating down. People began arriving more than an hour before that for the graduation ceremony at the county’s largest high school, with the late-comers forced to park along N.C. 89 nearly to Sparger Road in one direction, about a half-mile away.
While a lucky few spectators sat under large umbrellas, the effects of the heat on the human condition were punctuated by the parent of one graduate collapsing in the packed stands shortly after Saturday’s program got under way.
The proceedings were halted for about 15 minutes as a Mount Airy Rescue Squad ambulance rushed to the far-northern end of the home bleachers to attend to the father of Noah James Lyons. He was removed from the crowd on a stretcher and driven away.
Thus, his son inadvertently became the first person to receive a diploma when Principal Neil Atkins momentarily departed from the schedule so the grad could leave the stadium.
“He’s OK,” Surry County Emergency Services Director John Shelton said later regarding the condition of the elder Lyons, who apparently suffered from a heat-related issue although this could not be confirmed.
That incident seemed to serve as a metaphor for overcoming adversity, though, as Rachel Hull, student body president, picked right up where she left off during an address to the senior class.
Hull entertained the crowd with her admittedly off-beat approach.
“This is not the typical graduation speech, because I’m telling you what you need to hear,” the student said, as opposed to what the audience might have wanted to hear.
Hull changed her speech after watching a clip from the television comedy show “The Big Bang Theory,” in which a character named Leonard delivered a graduation speech at his high school. He begins in a conventional manner before a realization hits.
“Then he stops in mid-sentence and said, ‘I’m boring myself,’” Hull described.
She then was struck by the thought that her own speech also was boring and decided to make some alterations.
“I have come to the conclusion of what is really important,” Hull told the crowd, saying that the best thing she could tell her fellow classmates was to be themselves as they continue through life.
“Do what you love and be what you want to be,” the student body president said. “Why wouldn’t you want to do something that would make you happy for the rest of your life?”
God has given the North Surry grads life and they should make the most of that gift, Hull added.
“Be what you want to be — I can’t stress that enough,” she said. “Be you — don’t let anyone tell you that you can’t be you.”
Hull also offered another sitcom reference in her closing remarks to classmates, a quote from the Michael Scott character played by Steve Carell on “The Office”:
“May your hats fly as high as your dreams,” she related. “So Class of 2015, let those hats fly high.”
Kelsey Badgett, senior class president, continued in the same vein, telling fellow graduates that the future, which once seemed a distant concept, is now upon them.
“Many of us look at graduation as an ending, but we need to look at it as a beginning.”
Badgett said the students’ learning process could be even more meaningful later on, given a prediction that the top jobs 10 years from now might not even exist today.
“So make sure not to limit yourself as you step out into this world,” the class president urged. “It’s not enough to simply get by in life.”
Principal Atkins said 83 percent of the graduates plan to further their education, 19 percent at four-year schools. Fifteen percent will be entering the work force and 2 percent are headed to some branch of the military.
The group has achieved more than $2.4 million in scholarships, Atkins said.
“The Class of 2015 is an exceptional group of students,” he said. “Our future is in good hands.”
Along with the students who walked across the stage Saturday to receive diplomas, special mention was made of one who was not able to do so.
Taylor Nicole Thompson, a 17-year-old senior at the school, was fatally injured in a car accident last Nov. 24 on U.S. 52, which also claimed her younger half-sister, who attended the nearby Gentry Middle School.
Thompson was “an example of everything that is right with this world,” the principal said over the loudspeaker, his voice cracking with emotion.
She came to school every day with a smile on her face and was working hard to achieve her career goals, Atkins said.
So in her memory, the diploma the girl would have gotten was bestowed to family members, who received a huge ovation when walking across the stage Saturday.
“Taylor will forever be in our hearts,” the principal said, “and forever a Greyhound.”
Tom Joyce may be reached at 336-415-4693 or on Twitter @Me_Reporter.