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THIS WEEK'S FEATURED STORIES

WHS graduates march toward the future

By Roger Greene
Coastal Observer

Thoughts raced in the minds of the 174 members of the Waccamaw High Class of 2012 as they assembled in the school’s cafeteria in preparation for last week’s graduation ceremony.

There was reflection on their journeys from preschool and elementary school to becoming high school graduates, and anticipation of what lies ahead after passing one of life’s major milestones.

While all took a sense of satisfaction and pride upon walking into the gymnasium to begin commencement, the moment was perhaps most significant for Jasonn Russell.

After all, during the late night hours of Aug. 28, 2010, Russell lay in the marsh with life-threatening injuries, the victim of a hit and run accident that occurred between Sportsman Drive and the bridge over Clubhouse Creek. Suffering a range of injuries that included brain trauma, a chest wound and broken ribs, Russell was first taken to Waccamaw Community Hospital before being transferred to the Medical University of South Carolina in Charleston. Intensive rehabilitation had Russell back in school by the middle of September and he says his first birthday following the accident was a seminal event for him and his family.

Making the walk with his classmates for graduation also left an indelible mark on the 18-year-old, who will continue his education at Coastal Carolina University.

“I’m excited,” Russell said. “I don’t know that this compares to my 17th birthday because that was kind of a signal to everyone that I had gotten through [the accident] and was going to be all right. But this is a happy day for me and my family.”

Given all that he endured, it’s no surprise that Russell is hopeful for a career in the medical field, leaning toward becoming a physical therapist.

“The physical therapists that worked with me inspired me every day,” Russell said. “I’d like to be able to help people in the same way.”

Though none of his cohorts experienced the kind of trauma the accident inflicted on Russell, principal David Hammel believes a sense of determination permeated his latest graduating class. Hammel has been with the group for five years, starting with them in eighth grade as principal at Waccamaw Middle, then transferring over with them to begin at WHS in the fall of 2008.

“It’s difficult for me to see them go out the door,” Hammel said. “It’s a class that is very special to me. I’ve seen them go from adolescents to young men and women. I’ve built great relationships with them. Seeing everything they have accomplished is certainly meaningful for me.”

The changes for next school year won’t be limited to the student body. Departing with the Class of 2012 are also several faculty members, most notably social studies teacher Dennis Lee – one of the original faculty when the school opened in 1990 – and math teacher Brian Brennan, who also coached soccer, cross country and the academic team.

Lee will still coach football and work with the homebound program next year and Brennan will teach math at West Ashley High in Charleston where his family has relocated.

“It’s a good group to go out with,” Brennan said. “Life changes and you have to embrace that. I spent almost half my life teaching in [Georgetown County schools]. I wouldn’t change anything about that; it’s been wonderful for me.”

The school building itself also continues to undergo a facelift. Construction of a larger auditorium finished this spring. Work on a new media center and additional classroom space is under way. As part of the project, the school will lose its distinctive glass atrium. Valedictorian Hayley Swatzel summed up the changes in her speech, remarking how “Waccamaw High is turning the page with us.”

Sixty five members of the graduating class earned high (4.0 to 4.49 cumulative grade point average) or highest (4.5 and above) honors. Scholarship offers to the class exceeded $4.4 million.

McNeely Abernathy was the first graduate to be called, walking across the stage to receive her diploma shortly after 7 p.m.

“I’m probably going to trip,” she said with a laugh. “I don’t want that to be my last high school moment.”

Abernathy, who will attend the University of South Carolina, made the walk without incident, and in roughly an hour, she and classmates were instructed to turn their tassels and became official high school graduates.

That their high school days seemed to pass as quickly as the graduation ceremony stood out to many.

“After 12 years together we are going to separate,” said Malcolm Gibbs, who will be attending the Apprentice School next fall. “It’s hitting me that this will probably be the last time we are together as a class. In a way, that is kind of sad.”

Dale Marsh, also on her way to USC, added “It’s kind of surreal. It’s a moment you wait for, then all of a sudden you’re here. It’s unbelievable. The time went so fast.”

And while the thought of leaving WHS behind is somewhat bittersweet, the opportunities and experiences the future will bring are exciting prospects.

“Everyone says things are different after you graduate,” said A.J. Grant, who is still exploring options on where to continue his education and basketball career. “I’ll miss school. I’m sure a lot of us will. But we have to deal with that and focus on bigger and better things.”

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