PALMETTO -- After 40 years of teaching, it can get tiring.
But the Class of 2014 made John Harder feel as if it was his first year of teaching again, and for that, he'll miss the 233 graduates who crossed the stage and received a diploma from Southeast High School on Saturday at the Bradenton Area Convention Center.
"These students brought a lot of youth to my old bones," said Harder, 65.
The coach of the 2014 state champion Noles girls basketball team and the Florida coach of the year, Harder led the audience in multiple cheers during his speech, including a "hip hip hooray" cheer and a cheer of "orange," the high school's color.
Harder was chosen to speak at graduation by the student body, a
humbling honor, he said.
"He's a father figure to many of us students," said Dakota Lawson, senior class president.
The strength of the Southeast family was touched upon many times Saturday. Jesse Gervais and his mother, Joslynne Fox, along with Fox's parents, were first in line to enter the convention center to watch Fox's son and Gervais' brother, Sterling Silver Fox, graduate.
Gervais traveled from Arizona to watch his brother. The family arrived at the convention center by 7:20 a.m. and waited outside in line for almost an hour before securing front-row seats.
"That's my baby," said Fox, who has two older children. "It's amazing, I'm really proud of him."
Golden Feather Award recipients and class speakers also talked about the sense of community instilled in them at Southeast High.
"We may not be the biggest school, but we certainly are the best," said speaker Melanie Mortham. "It's a community, not a school."
Gillian Palino personally thanked her parents for driving and motivating her during her speech. She remembered one time she made an off-the-cuff comment to her mom about needing Oreos and icing to finish a big project. When Palino sat down to work on the project, her mother brought her the snack and told her there was milk in the fridge to go along with it.
"My parents have gone beyond the call of duty," Palino said, before urging her fellow graduates to change the world for their children and their families.
"Let's change everything for the better."
The final student speaker, Alexander Strzalkowski, talked about how the students grew at the high school, from their bright-eyed first two years as underclassmen, and the last two years, which demanded a lot of work. Strzalkowski left his fellow graduates with three pieces of advice.
"Work hard, dream and show kindness," he said.
Meghin Delaney, education reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7081. Follow her on Twitter @MeghinDelaney.