STAUNTON — It was 8:13 a.m. when Mia Neeley went downstairs to the living room, just less than two hours before graduation.
But, of course, she’d been up for a while.
A bundle of nerves — Neeley had a speaking part in Staunton High School’s graduation ceremony — the Storm upperclassman found sleep hard to come by.
“I’ve been up because I’m nervous, so maybe like 6 a.m.,” Neeley said. “I showered. I did a little cleaning. I didn’t have to do much with my hair except my edges, and then I had to paint my toes and throw some jewelry on.”
Motown Philly by Boyz II Men played softly in the background as she slipped her graduation gown over a white summer dress. The Virginia-Tech-bound Staunton High School senior adorned her gown with a red satin cloth reserved for graduating upperclassmen who maintained a 4.0 GPA or higher.
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She added two more achievement-based cords to her wardrobe, and then decided the cap could wait until later.
By 8:44 a.m., Neeley was loaded in the car, en route to join the other 199 Storm seniors graduating on Saturday. At 9:46 a.m., Neeley sauntered into classroom 300, ready to join the senior procession of students marching into the high school’s John Lewis Auditorium.
By 10:12 a.m., senior class president Alton Harris had welcomed everyone into graduation, and Neeley and her 2023 classmates received their first roaring ovation.
It wouldn’t be the last.
As part of the tradition, class president Harris passed the gavel to 2024 class president Blakely Bryant, and principal Nate Collins announced the 10 seniors who graduated in the top five percent of their class. Neeley’s classmate Benton Cason announced the graduation speaker.
Ivan Guadarrama, a 2004 school graduate, encouraged Neeley and her classmates to chase their dreams and embrace failure as part of the process.
“You won’t get that first job. You won’t win every game, and you will experience heartbreak,” said Guadarrama, a former U.S. Marine officer who received two humanitarian awards during his enlistment. “Failure is OK. It’s a byproduct of success.”
Neeley then introduced salutatorian William Brooks, who gave a stirring speech about moments not having to be perfect to be enjoyed.
“It’s important to never let a simple moment of joy pass you by,” Brooks said. “And remind yourself of those special words, ‘If this isn’t nice, I don’t know what is.’ Although this graduation can be considered a bit more than a small moment of joy in life, I believe this phrase still applies.”
Brooks was responsible for the funniest moment at graduation, one that left the crowd in stitches. The senior insisted that a rite of passage for graduating seniors was the privilege of now addressing faculty by their first names or their nicknames.
After addressing Principal Collins with all the reverence his position deserved, Brooks then threw in a “Nate Dogg” for good measure.
Although Collins was part of the comedy, the outgoing principal was also part of one of the ceremony’s most emotional moments.
Superintendent Garrett Smith publicly thanked Collins for his leadership. Collins guided the school through significant changes like the new facility and navigating the global pandemic. He is moving to the central office with Staunton City Schools.
Class treasurer Saniyah Smith introduced valedictorian Neil Haynes — who just happened to be celebrating his birthday — for his speech.
Haynes shocked the crowd by downplaying his achievement.
“It’s not about your grade point average,” Haynes said to thunderous applause. “It’s about the make-up of your character. The most important things I learned weren’t any biomechanics project or history assignment of how photosynthesis works — or anything like that — the most important lessons I learned were compassion, empathy, courtesy, hard work, and all the little things that add up over time.”
By 10:52 a.m., the speeches were done. Then, beginning with Tristan Blake Apgar and concluding with Kiana Leigh Yancey, the next 30 minutes were dedicated to each student walking across the stage to receive a diploma. Neeley, 122nd in the alphabetized line, received her diploma at 11:12 a.m.
By 11:28 a.m., the ceremony was over. Neeley and her classmates said goodbyes and took hundreds of pictures with classmates, friends and family members for the next 40 minutes. Then, at 12:10 p.m., Neeley hopped back in the car.
This time as a high school graduate.
“It feels good,” Neeley said. “It’s definitely a once-in-a-lifetime experience. It’s a very big accomplishment, and we did it.”