It took them two extra months amid a pandemic and a 20-minute weather delay, but 444 members of Habersham County’s Class of 2020 are finally high school graduates.
School administrators conferred diplomas on 424 seniors from Habersham Central High School and 20 seniors from the Habersham Success Academy on Friday, July 31. The socially distanced evening ceremony at Raider Stadium looked different, but still bore the hallmarks of a traditional commencement.
This was Habersham Central’s 50th graduation. In observance of the milestone, the school invited its first-ever Lifetime Achievement Award recipient to speak at the ceremony.
Dr. Stacy Nicholson was accompanied onto the field by his wife, Carol, and brother and sister-in-law Bruce and Brenda Nicholson of Habersham County. A 1977 graduate of Habersham Central, Dr. Nicholson is a pediatric oncologist who now serves as President of Atrium Health Levine Children’s in Charlotte, North Carolina. “A lot of what I’ve learned in life, I learned right here on this field,” he told the graduates, referencing his days as a high school athlete.
Nicholson spoke of how athletics, school, family, and church influenced him as a young man and instilled in him the values of perseverance, hard work, and an understanding of the importance of leadership. Those are traits he has relied on throughout his medical career. “The foundation laid at Habersham Central set me on a path to treating children with cancer.”
Growing up in Northeast Georgia in the sixties and seventies, Nicholson drew parallels between the cultural and political challenges he faced in his youth to what today’s young people are facing. He encouraged the graduates to pursue joy and purpose in their lives. “Live a life of gratitude, no matter what is thrown at you.” He also encouraged them to “Live the Golden Rule: Treat others as you wish to be treated.”
“I would encourage you to be a peacemaker. Befriend someone who’s different from you and I don’t just mean be friendly … walk in their shoes. Develop a sense of community.” Dr. Nicholson rounded out his advice, telling the graduates to “work hard” and “always keep learning and be open to new ideas.”
HCHS Senior Class President Kellsie Rogers echoed that same theme of openness when she urged her classmates to face their futures with an open mind and heart. “Embrace what makes you different.”
As she looked forward, Rogers also looked back, offering her classmates a mental time capsule of their past four years in high school. She spoke of their senior year cut short by the coronavirus and said, although things didn’t turn out the way they had hoped, “I think we got to see some pretty cool things happen when we were seniors.” Her list included being part of the 50th graduating class and an “eventful” election year – “Most of us even voted for the first time ever.” She touched on the achievements of the Stage Raiders, Band of Blue, and Lady Raider Volleyball team, and on that not-soon-to-be-forgotten Raider football win over one of their biggest rivals. “Our Raiders beat Stephens County for the first time in 22 years right here on this field.”
Those are the kind of moments you expect to hear about in a graduation speech, but they were not the only memories shared Friday night. HCHS Salutatorian Anea Harris reflected on the racism she encountered beginning in elementary school.
“Recess was the first place I got an in-school nickname; I believe it was Oreo,” Harris recounted in stirring rhythmic recitation what it was like growing up black in rural Northeast Georgia. “Oreo for me was more than a game, it was a name, and maybe if you were black and white in rural Georgia our names would be the same, but that’s the thing about the joke, it was only funny until I came to know that Oreo was them getting a feel for how far they could go because, eventually, Oreo lost and added a few letters and it took on its new form as the N-Word.” She continued, “But I knew just as much about the word as those who used it and I got used to it. And it got used again and again and again, and I was only in elementary school.”
The bullying and prejudice continued throughout her middle and high school years, Harris said.
“I almost forgot one of my favorite memories when teachers would give us a break and trade lectures for movies, like the time when we were watching The Help. At the end of the year, when work was through, and a few boys in the corner whispered for me to come over out of the blue, and I went over without a worry in mind but one said ‘Turn around’ and when I turned around, the other boy he, he spit in my eye. What a time, ahh, school.
Forcing an uncomfortable but timely reckoning on racism, Harris said for a long time she blamed it on a lack of diversity. Ultimately, she realized, some people simply choose to mistreat others. Still, she refused to let that stop her. “From their ignorance in the form of remarks and actions, I found motivation. I found a desire to prove that there has always been more to me than the color of my skin.”
Harris proved plenty. Second in her class and a Posse Scholar, she is heading to Boston University in the fall.
As she closed out her high school career Friday night, Harris framed her experiences as a call to action. “Make my story mean something,” she urged. “Choose to love people despite their appearance or beliefs with a love that goes beyond the words you speak. Put action behind your statements and show someone you do not filter your love or kindness based on the way they look or the actions they do or do not commit.”
HCHS Valedictorian Grace Wills, too, challenged her peers and fellow graduates to effect positive change in the world.
“Through cooperation, we can find a better future together. It is not just an opportunity, it is a responsibility,” she said.
“If you are like me you may have looked around at the world in the past few months and wished you could do something to relieve the suffering of millions of people. Our options were limited before. After today, we have officially entered the adult world and we have two options, action or complicity,” Wills said. “We may not know how exactly yet, but one thing is clear, it is our job and our duty to stand up and try to change the world for the better. The only way we will achieve justice and peace is if we force it.”
Wills leaned into her pandemic binge-watching days and quoted a line from Dwight Schrute on The Office. “I am ready to face any challenge that might be foolish enough to face me,” she quoted, adding, “and I think the Class of 2020 is too. Congratulations everyone!”
To view the livestream of the ceremony, visit Hab Raiders Video on YouTube.