Having covered five or six graduations per year for nearly 20 years, the details of that day are no longer clear in my memory. I don't remember who the valedictorian and salutatorian were or what angle I used when I wrote my article on the ceremony.
The only thing I remember about the ceremony was the graduate who wasn't there.
Her name was Jessica Jo Lynn. Jessica was nine years old and a fourth grader at Jasper when she was killed in a house fire. I covered that story for the Lamar Democrat. Eight years later, I was working for a different newspaper and the name of Jessica Jo Lynn hadn't crossed my thoughts in years.
I had forgotten her...but her classmates never did.
Her name was mentioned in one of the speeches and I noticed a few tears among her classmates, who had continued their path to adulthood while Jessica's ended in fourth grade.
Children never forget their friends and including them in the important events of their life, like their high school graduation, is a wonderful way to keep them in their memories. It is also a way to let the families of those who left too early know that their loved one has not been forgotten.
Sometimes it is done through a mention by one of the speakers, I have attended graduations where seats, sometimes holding a cap and gown, are reserved for the former classmate.
This year will be the year that Zach Williams would have graduated from Joplin High School. His school days ended when he was only 12 years, 11 months, and three days old, less than a month from becoming a teenager, when he was killed May 22, 2011, in the Joplin Tornado.
I never knew Zach. He would have been one of my students in the 2011-2012 school year. I had seen him in the hallways, but I had never had a conversation with him. I learned quite a bit about him during the following year, as students brought his name up from time to time.
One eighth grade girl who talked to me felt his loss deeply. "The last time we talked; we got into an argument. It was over something silly. I don't even remember what it was then I heard he was missing after the tornado. I wish I could talk to him one more time. It was the last thing I said to him and it was something mean. And he was my friend. I wish he knew how I really felt."
I learned yesterday that there may be an obstacle to allowing the Joplin High School Class of 2016 to include Zach Williams in its graduation ceremony.I received a message from his mother Monday saying that she had been told that Zach would not be honored in any way at the ceremony because other students and teachers had died that day.
I certainly hope there was some misunderstanding, but thankfully, there is time to make sure that Zach is remembered in some way at what would have been his high school graduation. Whether that is done by school officials, parents and district patrons, or by those who knew Zach at East Middle School, does not matter, but Joplin High School is not too big that it cannot take the time to remember those who could not be there.
His classmates should be able to show Joplin that while the years pass and memories fade, Zach Williams, forever 12, will remain a member of the Joplin High School Class of 2016.