HARTFORD —— The graduating class at Opportunity High School consisted of just 45 students, and the families, including some youngsters who were the children of the graduates themselves, barely filled the small gymnasium's bleachers.
But although Thursday night's ceremony may have been modest, there was plenty of energy.
Several members of the audience were attending their first graduation ceremony, cheering loudly as students draped in black and yellow gowns accepted their diplomas. They were in the third graduating class from the alternative education program for city teenagers.
The students at Opportunity graduated with more than a diploma. As valedictorian Keena Olen put it in her speech, they "came here for credits, but left with something they didn't expect. They're leaving with a family."
The friendship of the students was particularly notable during a slideshow that made them laugh loudly and hug each other. Many of the students had transferred to Opportunity after failing classes in middle and high school, making a shot at a diploma seem like an impossible goal.
Genesis Perez said she felt overwhelmed at her previous school, Capital Prep Magnet School, but that Opportunity High made her feel that graduation was "easy." She was comfortable there, and her former English teacher, Joseph Battaglia, called her out during his commencement speech, saying she was one of the loudest girls in the school.
Salutatorian Cristina Ortiz said the school was calmer than her previous school, the Academy of Aerospace and Engineering. She plans to attend a community college and then try to go to a four-year college.
"I want to go into counseling, specifically for drug- and alcohol-abuse," she said. "I'm more familiar with that kind of atmosphere here, than I would be in say, Simsbury. I know life isn't easy."
The school's counselor, Kathie Gladding, came back from medical leave just to see her students graduate.
"They've just had so much failure — this is their one great accomplishment," she said.
The highlight of the ceremony was when Battaglia recited a poem that included something he'd remember about every single person in the class. He teased Josh Washington for liking Taylor Swift and Felix Chamoro for his inappropriate jokes.
It was a moment that captured not only how much the students cared for their teachers, but how much their teachers cared for them.
Said Battaglia to the graduating class: "I am nothing without you."
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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