June 1, 2005 - Silly string: $1.99. Cap and gown: $30. Beach ball: $5. Celebrating the last days as a high school student: priceless.

Every year in May, thousands of graduates say good-bye to the high schools many have called home for four years and get ready to venture out into the "real world."

Filled with tradition, pomp and circumstance, graduations throughout Southern Arizona celebrate the students and their accomplishments in many different ways.

Even with the graduation ceremony caked in tradition, many of the schools throughout Pima County found ways to bring the uniqueness of the students and the schools to light.

In the four public high schools' graduation ceremonies in the Northwest and Foothills, grand celebrations are the focus. In the private schools, the individual is highlighted and faith mixes in with celebration. No matter what way students celebrated in May, they did so with energy and enthusiasm for their accomplishments.

May 18, 8 p.m. Marana High School: The scene is set, with chairs lined up on the football field. A spot is set aside for each of the 290 graduates. Family members spill out of the bleachers, some carrying homemade signs cheering on their graduates, others simply relying on their voices to scream out the names of their special someones.

"Cody! Yay!" "Brittany!" is heard from the crowd as the graduates, dressed in blue, take to the field. Some wear flip-flops under their gowns; others opt for a more dressed-up approach with heels and dress shoes. No matter what is under the gowns, smiles are worn on each and every face.

Again, there were white chairs and blue robes. It was 7:30 p.m. The sunset and the ceremony got underway.

Showing off the uniqueness of the class, graduate Kyle Lorenson performed "Let it Out" on his guitar. The lyrics rang out to the crowd as a personalized message to the graduates. "Hard at times - most of all flown by," he sang. "Thank you for all the memories."

The ceremony featured about 45 minutes of speeches. Principal Wagner Van Vlack offered words of wisdom from his mother, telling the grads they are about to embark on the "most meaningful future you can imagine." Board President Cliff Altfeld bestowed on them the advice of the man who sells newspapers in the median at Sunrise Drive and Swan Road: Stay in school, get an education. Each spoke words of encouragement and congratulations.

Catalina Foothills High School's graduation ceremony had no fireworks, no bags of silly string and no beach balls, but it had a lot of support from the crowd, with by far the loudest bullhorn celebrations.

Canyon del Oro High School did things a bit differently than they were done at the two previously mentioned graduations. Sure, there were about the same numbers of family and friends who filled the bleachers, but the graduates were more spread out and were monitored with a stricter hand than at the other two. Perhaps the administration could foresee the beach ball that flew without interruption for more than 60 seconds in the middle of the diploma ceremony, which was confiscated by an usher and immediately deflated.

Principal Michael Gemma spoke to the graduating class, calling it "small but mighty" - the smallest graduating class the school has seen since 1984.

A poem was read by graduates Ravi DeFlippo and Melissa Roland, in which they made silly remarks and remembered inside jokes the graduates had shared throughout their four years together. From their poem the theme of graduates climbing the mountain emerged, as they quoted Dr. Seuss: "Today is your day, your mountain in waiting."

Smiles, photos, fireworks. All over in about an hour, leaving lots of time to celebrate.

One way three local public schools celebrated was with a an all-night party free of drugs and alcohol, immediately following the graduation ceremony.

CDO held its second annual Project Graduation event, selling $75 tickets to 275 students. In all three cases, the all-night parties offered a way for graduates to celebrate in open and safe environments with their fellow graduates.

CDO's party theme was "Mardi Gras Magic," and it needed more than 150 volunteers and almost a full year of planning, said Liz Spector, a committee member. Students were able to eat dinner, play in the casino and attend an outside carnival with writing analysts, psychics, games, pool tables and beach volleyball. Hot tubs were set up along with a flat-screen television on a "crash pad" for those students who needed to take a break from the party that goes until about 5 a.m., Spector said.

"Sometimes they're tired and they just want to chill out."

Both CDO and Ironwood Ridge High School's Project Graduation events offered prizes, including a car for the winning graduate.

Oro Valley Police Chief Danny Sharp said these all-night graduation parties should be encouraged and supported not only for the graduates but also for the safety of the community.

"It's a great opportunity for kids to get together, to celebrate, to have this transition," Sharp said.

Catalina Foothills High School was the first to host an all-night graduation celebration in Pima County, which inspired CDO and Ironwood Ridge to follow.

Their grad night, this year titled "Undiscovered Treasures," has been going on for 10 years, said grad night chairwoman Robyn Schwager, and each year more interest from the students takes hold. This year, 369 students shelled out $100 to spend the night partying with food, dance, an outside carnival, sumo wrestling, laser tag and a casino.

As the clock approached 4:15 a.m. and the party was winding down, you could see the look of sleep deprivation on the faces of many graduates. Around the party, words like "I'm going to go home and take a nap" and "I'm tired" were common.

However, for two friends sitting at a table covered in confetti and empty glasses, Kyle Cummings and Andrew Rodack, the party could have gone on for another 12 hours.

Each student took turns laughing about the night they had just shared, playing in the casino and "losing it all," and about the graduation ceremony that now seemed like so many hours ago.

"It's been great," Cummings said.

While public school graduations may get the most attention and their traditions may be the most recognizable, May brings with it other students from other schools who are also shaking hands and turning tassels from left to right.

Immaculate Heart Preparatory School held its graduation ceremony at St. Odilia's Church, 7570 N. Paseo del Norte. Family and friends filled nearly every pew in the modestly decorated church.

The ceremony honored 15 graduates and came second to an hour-long mass officiated by Bishop Gerald Kicanas.

Like the other graduations, cameras hung around the necks of proud parents, however no silly string or beach balls were floating around the church during the ceremony.

Kicanas asked the graduates, girls dressed in white, boys in blue, "So you want to make your mark, stand out, stand at peak? Of course, everyone does."

He, too, made mention of a mountain the graduates have yet to climb as they set out on life's journey. He offered the graduates some suggestions for climbing the mountain: "Don't climb alone. Climb with determination and endurance. Stay focused, yet adaptable. Stay grounded, tied to the values that sustain us. Stick to the guide, no matter what you do, and you will never be alone."

After communion and prayers, it was time to celebrate the graduates.

Diplomas were handed out and speeches were made as the graduates shared one last moment with their parents before exiting the church. The grads all handed their parents single long-stemmed roses. Tears flowed and hugs were long. They had done it.

Outside in the Tucson heat of May 21, the graduates gathered together for one last group picture and released blue balloons into the sky. Each balloon had a simple wish written on it by a graduate.

"I want to become successful and learn from whatever mistakes I make," wrote Amy Garcia. "I want to become a successful English teacher and see the world," Geoffrey Rowe wrote.

The balloons were released and the graduates separated to the arms of their family and friends.

For Salome Moreno, one of two students who tied for class valedictorian, the ceremony wasn't as long as she feared, but it felt like it was somehow bittersweet.

"We have grown so close," she said. "It has been like learning in a small family."

One of the last graduation ceremonies of May, and one that strongly echoed the theme of family, was that of the private school Green Fields Country Day School, held May 27.

Thrown a bit off course by a sporadic spring storm, hundreds of family members and friends filled the auditorium for a chance to watch the 28 graduates receive diplomas and perform for one last time together as a class.

Green Fields in known as a close community school with a strong emphasis on the visual and performing arts, and nowhere was this more evident than in the nearly two-hour-long graduation. Students took turns speaking, reciting poems and singing John Lennon and Paul McCartney songs. One graduate even sang a number by Elvis Presley.

There were no valedictorian and class president speeches for this class. There were chosen speakers, who ranged from students to teachers to even the well-known Tucsonan Cele Peterson.

Perhaps the most touching moment of the graduation was when retiring teacher John Ostlund gave a speech. He was chosen by the graduating class to offer some parting words of wisdom. Ostlund said being chosen to speak was "the greatest honor I have ever received."

Ostlund spoke directly to the students, calling each one by name and remembering a special moment they shared.

"Luke and Amber, you are true artists," he said. "Dylan, just know I love you, man."

The grads were visibly touched, smiling meekly and laughing at the inside jokes from a faculty member they said they have grown so very close to.

In the end, the ceremonies are completed, the football fields are empty, and the diplomas have been handed out. As the graduates embark on journeys at the colleges of their choice, at the jobs they have chose, or on road trips of a lifetime, one thing is sure. Each graduation ceremony may have been different, but they were all celebrating the students and the Class of 2005.

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