MP Strong: Tears but no fears (slide show)

EVERETT – High school graduations always have some tears. But the one for Marysville-Pilchuck Wednesday had more than most.

At the front of the 289 graduating seniors was an empty chair. It was in honor of the freshmen who were killed in the school’s cafeteria four years ago: Gia Soriano, Shaylee Chuckulnaskit, Zoe Galasso and Andrew Fryberg, along with shooter Jaylen Fryberg. Nate Hatch survived the shooting.

While some of the speakers mentioned the tragedy and how the Class of 2018 was able to overcome it, Brianna Jason’s “Reflection Speech” really hit home on how many of her classmates felt throughout high school.

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“On Oct. 24, 2014 my best friend, Gia, was murdered, and my life changed forever. That morning a classmate walked into our school cafeteria and shot five of my friends before killing himself. As I sat in my fifth-period Spanish class, huddled against the wall in lockdown, I learned that I was never going to see my best friend again… None of this felt real until I had to stand up in front of hundreds of people at her funeral and talk about Gia in past tense.

“I had always loved learning, but after the shooting school didn’t interest me… I made myself go to school but I couldn’t focus. My grades dropped, and I felt like giving up…”

Jason went on to say she couldn’t find happiness so she transferred to Arlington High School. While she liked it there she decided to return to M-P. “Marysville-Pilchuck is home, and it’s the only school that has the people I went through the hardest part of my life with. I couldn’t imagine graduating without them… This tragedy has caused me great pain but I am much stronger now, and I feel I can overcome any obstacle that life puts in my way.”

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School resource officer Chris Sutherland gave the most emotional speech of the night. He said if you look up the word “resiliency” the meaning could be M-PHS Class of 2018. When something bad happens, people have three ways to react: It can define you, it can destroy you, or it can strengthen you. He has seen first-hand how strong the students have become. He choked up and received a standing ovation when he said, “You are everyday heroes.”

Outgoing superintendent Becky Berg also applauded the graduates.

“Thank you for teaching me to be strong in the face of diversity,” she said. “We have been through a nightmare together.” She took off her robe and underneath had a t-shirt with the saying, “Not one more,” referring to school shootings. Berg said for years she’s been saying the shooting does not define us, “But maybe it does. Turn this mess into a message. We need safer schools.”

She said more school resource officers are needed, along with more mental health services for kids. “We found that out the hard way,” she said. “And, we need reasonable, meet-in-the-middle gun laws. We have the fire in our bellies to make this stop.”

Senior Class president Sarah Barbosa also spoke of her slain classmates: “As you know, we are missing some of our peers who should be here with us tonight. The empty chair you see in the front row is in memory of those we lost. We will carry these classmates in our hearts as we walk across this stage tonight. We’ve been through a lot together, haven’t we?” she said.

She said the tragedy brought them closer together and made them strong. “We’ve taken what life threw at us and got through it by leaning on each other. Look around you class of 2018… You are strong, you are MP Strong and there is nothing you can’t do… We are leaving a legacy of strength and resiliency.” Catherine Baxter, one of the four valedictorians, talked about how tough their journey was. “We have also gone through trials that nobody should ever have to face… We could have let that define the end of our hopes and dreams for the future. Yet …I see a class who has not given up.”

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