A hum of excited conversation and an air of expectation filled the Charlene Powers Lange Theatre at Hutchins Street Square on Thursday morning.
When the first notes of “Pomp and Circumstance” rang out, though, the audience turned in their seats to watch the stream of seniors slowly marching toward the stage, and the murmurs turned into cheers of excitement.
Clad in white and light blue graduation gowns, the excited teens couldn’t keep the infectious, proud grins off of their faces as the procession curled through the theater to their seats on the stage.
They had a lot to be proud of, Principal Tamara Dillon said.
“Today marks an important milestone in the lives of these young people,” she told the families and friends gathered to celebrate the record-breaking 70 graduates.
But the students at Liberty High School, a continuation school in Lodi, have faced challenges many of their peers did not, she said.
Many transferred to Liberty at the beginning of their junior or senior year, because they had struggled in traditional high school or fallen behind on coursework for a large number of reasons: they had lost one or both parents to illness, death, prison or addiction, they were in a situation where they had no steady home, they had to work to help support their families and fell behind in academics.
All 70 of the graduates had met with her for an orientation when they began attending Liberty, Dillon said.
“At that first meeting, they often looked frustrated and tired,” she said. “But every student has a desire to be successful.”
Some had their own personal hurdles to face; some were the first in their families to attend high school and had no support network at home when they struggled with school work.
But every one of the students on stage had overcome those hurdles to earn a high school diploma.
“They are champions,” Dillon announced to cheers. “They have survived, thrived, overcome and achieved their goals.”
Student speaker Adilenne Ruiz thanked her family and friends, especially her mother, who pushed her when she needed it, she said. Then, she spoke to her fellow graduates.
“We all had one common goal: to survive and graduate,” she said.
They entered Liberty feeling like they were facing an overwhelming amount of work, but with the support of the school’s staff and their friends and family, they were able to prove to themselves — and those who thought they could never do it — that they could overcome.
“We learned through hard work and perseverance that we could reach our goals,” she said.
It was fitting that graduate Blakeley Halloran’s performance of “Rise Up” should follow Ruiz’s speech. When Dillon introduced her, she said Halloran should be on “The Voice,” the singing competition show — but the audience wasn’t prepared for her powerful rendition of Andra Day’s soulful hit.
“That was awesome!” one man in the audience screamed out as the last note faded, unleashing a wave of cheers.
Then, Levana Ascencio Barrios, gave her valedictory speech, opening with a nod to her own personal struggle.
“Dad, losing you didn’t make me give up,” she said. “It made me work harder.”
She thanked Liberty’s teachers and the audience before offering a few words of advice to her fellow graduates.
“No matter how hard life gets, no matter what bumps we hit, never give up. That’s the easy way out,” she said.
Jose Santillan offered one final performance before diplomas were handed out. He’d never played guitar before transferring to Liberty in the fall, but took the guitar classes the high school offers.
Now, 10 months later, he was able to navigate the tricky melody for “Cherry Wine,” to the delight of the audience.
Afterward came the most triumphant part of the ceremony, as each student stepped forward to accept their diploma and shake hands with Lodi Unified trustees George Neely and Bonnie Cassel.
And then, diplomas in hand, tassels dutifully transferred to the left sides of their caps, and the notes of Queen’s “We Are the Champions” filling the theater, all that was left to do was file onto the grounds of Hutchins Street Square for hugs and photos — and their next adventure.