West High School graduates look beyond tragedy to the future


WACO — This is how they wish to be remembered:

Smiling in sleek gowns and bejeweled caps. Headed off to places such as Texas A&M, Texas Christian University and Baylor University. Gathered one last time, all together.

They don’t wish to be defined as the last senior class to walk the halls of West High School, though they were. They don’t wish to be known as the class that survived the explosion at West Fertilizer Co., though they did. They don’t wish to be reminded they graduated from high school Friday in the same building where the explosion’s victims were memorialized weeks earlier, though that’s true.

West High’s graduation was laced with reminders of April’s explosion, but the ceremony at Baylor’s Ferrell Center focused on the students and the promise of the future.

“This senior class should not be remembered by the event, but by how they responded. … The lifelong lessons that you have learned will be with you forever and will contribute to your future success,” principal Wayne Leek said at the ceremony.

With only a few weeks of school left, the blast upended their senior year, ushering the students into adulthood weeks early and teaching them lessons about adversity and resilience far sooner than expected.

The students ended the year by commuting to Waco for classes. There, they no longer had a senior hallway lined with red lockers. It no longer felt appropriate to carry out a senior prank by covering the floors with water-filled Dixie Cups. And it was no longer an option to coast until summer.

These kids — some 17, others barely 18 — had to step up and lead the younger grades by example. They did that in simple ways: by not complaining, by doing what their teachers asked them to do, by focusing on the positive instead of wallowing in self-pity.

It was a sharp turnaround from the day of the blast, when the seniors had a water balloon fight at school. The principal had sat them down and reminded them it wasn’t summer quite yet.

“Sometimes the seniors, they chuckle and say, ‘Remember you were getting after us,’” Leek said. “I said, ‘Yeah, let’s just forget that.’”

For all the class has lost, the students said the tragedy brought them closer together.

“It’s made us have an unbreakable bond,” said Sam Stone, a class officer whose home was destroyed in the blast.

In her speech, salutatorian Kara Kolar said the significance of graduation — remembering the past, giving thanks for the present and looking forward to what’s to come — was particularly meaningful for her class.

Just as no one expected the plant to blow up, she warned that more surprises may come after graduation.

“We must remember that change is good, even though it can be difficult and sometimes scary,” she said.

Although their friendships were cemented by adversity, they were built on everything that came before: attending prom in the cafeteria, singing “Happy Birthday” to Mr. Stephens, playing with Princess, Ms. Collier’s bearded dragon.

The graduates will take those happy memories with them, too. And on Friday, they added another one when they walked across the stage, one by one, and received their diplomas.

Senior Ashley Crowder, who is living in a double-wide trailer while her family rebuilds its home, gave the closing remarks.

“This is not the end of our story,” she said. “Congratulations, Class of 2013.”

The words were barely out of her mouth before the caps were in the air, twirling and cascading through a chaos of confetti and cheers.

This was their moment.