Matt Batey, 18, said his father would have smiled as he crossed center stage and was handed his high school diploma on Friday night.
His father, Terrell Batey, died when his son was 5 years old, so high school was sometimes difficult for the senior.
“But I feel I’ve accomplished a lot,” said Batey, dressed in a blue cap and gown, just minutes before commencement started for Bayshore High School’s Class of 2010. “If he was here he would have said, ‘I’m so proud of you son.’ ”
Batey was one of 285 Bayshore graduates who participated in the ceremony at the Manatee Civic Center.
One graduate, though, was noticeably absent.
In row seven on the auditorium floor was an empty chair with a yellow cap and gown and a white tassel draped over it.
A rose also rest on the seat in honor of Jazmine Thompson. The honors student and aspiring attorney was killed Sept. 4, the victim of a gunshot to the head.
“We had all these preparations for prom, and graduation,” said her grandmother, Aretha James, who attended Friday’s ceremony with Jazmine’s mother, Raechelle James and aunt Tiki James, among other family members. “When you think about it, this is something people don’t normally do, so this is just fantastic. To help us still continue to cope with her sudden passing.”
As “Pomp and Circumstance” played, Raechelle James sat in the south bleachers, staring at the empty chair.
“I wish she was here,” she said, wiping tears from her eyes. “So this is my special day for my daughter.”
As a tribute to Jazmine, Principal David Underhill led a moment of silence in her memory.
He also encouraged each graduate to believe in themselves as they continued their life journeys.
“Over the past 12 years you’ve been in public education,” Underhill said. “You now have the opportunity to begin to steer your own ship. Think about your past and look at your future. Go ahead, shoot for those stars. Continue to push forward, believe in yourself and refuse to accept failure as an option. Each leap of faith will make you smarter and stronger.”
Speaker Aubrey Condor reminded her fellow graduates that, as time goes by, they are given the gift of memories.
“And the past provides us with wisdom and strength. Today we are left but with one grain of sand as our time at Bayshore comes to an end. Only you can determine how it will be spent,” Condor said.
Speaker Lilla Lukacs reminded graduates that what they do from Friday night on matters more than they know.
“Each and every one of us tonight influences our surroundings,” she said. “We, every one of us, influence our world. Be flexible, always have a plan and a back-up plan, and a plan C, D, and E.
“Surround yourself with people that you love. Never be too proud to accept somebody else’s help. It’s OK to be vulnerable. Resent adversity and then be grateful, for it has made you stronger.”