The 2011 graduating class of l were a mixture of nerves, giggles and smiles as they walked to receive their diplomas Wednesday night.
For some the day could not have come sooner. For others it was a bittersweet goodbye. But for all 701 graduates it was a day that marked triumph and validation for their hard work.
This was especially true for Salutatorian A.J. Smith, 17, who had a tough senior year.
“About eight months ago my dad was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s,” Smith told the crowd. “In the beginning of the year, I also had some trouble with the law…but it could be worse.”
Smith also gave credit to his mom for being a strong influence and getting the family through this difficult time.
Although his senior year has not been easy, Smith managed to hold down a course load of five AP classes and graduated in the top two of his class with a 4.4 GPA. Smith will attend University of California, Los Angeles, majoring in biology.
While Smith’s legal trouble is all cleared up now, his father's condition has progressed rapidly, according to his mother, Rose Smith.
“I am so proud of my son. He is such an amazing kid with a strong character,” she said, tearing up.
Smith's father was unable to attend the ceremonies but his mother said he would be proud of his son.
“He would be balling his eyes out.”
Smith insisted it is his faith that has kept him moving forward, along with his mother’s strength and an internal drive.
Internal drive is what Smith, along with co-Salutatorian Dong Ah (Anne) Seo and Valedictorian Meagan Hennessy have in common.
Seo, 19, came to the U.S. at the age of 8 and had to learn English while attending school. Seo thanked her parents, who left their native Korea to come to America.
"My parents abandoned their home country in order to provide better opportunities for me and my sister," Seo said. “I thank them every day for the sacrifices they made for us.”
The valedictorian shared her hope for the Class of 2011.
“My hope for the graduating class is that they do what they want and don’t be afraid to try,” Hennessy said.
All three have received scholarships, and, as fate would have it, Seo and Hennessy are also attending University of California, Los Angeles, to pursue degrees in biology.
Almost 90 percent of Murrieta Valley graduates plan on heading on to college. About 30 graduates plan on entering the military and two dozen will attend a trade school. One member of the class, Jantz Johnson, has accepted an appointment to the United States Air Force Academy.
"This is a class of outstanding academic achievement," said Assistant Principal Mark Pettengill.
Deputy Superintendent Dr. Buck DeWeese said it best in his message to the graduates. He likened the students to a $100 bill.
“Whether the $100 bill is crumpled, stepped on, or dirty, it will always be worth a $100,” DeWeese said. “No matter if you are dropped, stepped on or dirty, you will never be worthless. Always know your value.”
According to Hennessy, the students owe credit to the teachers and staff of Murrieta Valley.
“I’ve never had the misfortune to have a teacher I didn’t like,” Hennessy said. “Ms. Inouye taught me to be more compassionate and understanding; Mr. Doddridge taught me to look at things from all angles; and Mr. Furleigh taught me to ‘just try something.’”
However, she did suggest assigning less homework to future students.
Just before the diplomas were handed out, Principal Renate Jefferson urged the graduates "to dream big and lead with your heart."
For Smith, this will come easy.
“He has such a big heart,” his mother said. “He is an extraordinary kid raised by two ordinary parents.”