Trojans forever: Final Wellston high school commencement is bittersweet
This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, May 21, 2010 - For legions of graduates this time of year, the timeless message is that commencement is not an end, it's a beginning.
For the 30 members of the 2010 graduating class of Melvin Ray Eskridge High School in Wellston, it was both.
At Friday night's graduation ceremony at Harris-Stowe State University, no one could forget that at the end of this school year, the Wellston School District will cease to exist, absorbed by neighboring Normandy because of a long record of poor achievement.
But for the graduates, their families, their teachers and other supporters of the district celebrating its 117th commencement, the occasion was more of a celebration than a wake.
"Timothy Bright ... Tyrice Clemons ... La'Adra Corbin"
From the moment that students began convening in a basement cafeteria annex, the mood was upbeat, excited. Girls in short skirts, tall heels and red robes, boys in sharp suits and black robes, people taking pictures of people taking pictures -- little about the evening spoke to the fact that this was the last graduating class the high school would see.
Soon-to-become alumni spoke of how they had supported each other and helped classmates reach their goal. There may be some tension in younger students who will be attending arch rival Normandy next year, but graduate Christopher Davis put it this way: "I think they can become friends."
It wasn't the end of the line only for students. Selby Smith, who taught math at Wellston as part of the Teach for America program, has an uncertain future as well. But he was proud of the graduates, particularly those whose chance to march across the stage and get a diploma wasn't certain until the last minute.
"It was a dramatic year," Smith said. "Some of the kids were on edge, about whether they would graduate or not, so they made that final push. They didn't want to graduate from anywhere else but Eskridge High School in Wellston."
"LaDonta Jones ... Kayla Joyner ... Charelle Landers"
Once the ceremonies began and the graduates began to stream down the aisles, the cheers from the families easily drowned out the strains of "Pomp and Circumstance." Emcee Ni'Rita Bradford noted that "we're making history," but she asked members of the audience to enjoy themselves while being respectful of the event.
Then the speakers began: salutatorian Carmen Harris, valedictorian Timothy Bright, Tiara Marbley with her senior reflections. Their themes were familiar -- thanking their families, their teachers, all the people who had helped them reach this special night. And they didn't fail to recognize the bittersweet nature of their final night as classmates.
"I am a product of Wellston," said Bright. "I have lived there all my life."
Marbley recalled her first days at Eskridge High, as what she termed an out-of-control freshman. "Look at me now," she added. "I'm here."
And she, like many others, noted the pride she felt in being a part of the school's traditions. "We can never forget where we came from," Marbley said. "Once a Trojan, always a Trojan."
"Jeffrey McCaw ... Latricia Pierce ... Ashley Shepard"
The adults had words of wisdom as well. Roger Noon, Wellston class of 1962, had the students repeat after him -- twice, after the first response was pretty weak -- "I need to succeed. Failure is not an option." He then presented five students scholarships totaling $4,000, courtesy of the alumni association.
And commencement speaker Harvey Cloyd provided the perfect parenthesis to the final graduation ceremony, because he was the first African-American student to receive a diploma from Wellston as part of the class of 1957 -- "back when there were white people in Wellston," he noted.
Proudly displaying his diploma, his class ring and his "W" for athletics, he told the students they should always remember their school but accept the merger with Normandy. "It's a done deal," Cloyd said, "and we have to live with it."
That mixture of pride and resignation carried through the evening as the students walked across the stage to grasp their diplomas, each cheered loudly.
Charles Brown, who has served as Wellston's superintendent and chairman of its special administrative board, may have summed things up best when he told the graduates:
"How do you keep the history of this school district going?" he asked. "You determine what happens.
"Give it to your brothers and sisters, and Wellston will never die."