TAMPA — The two best friends, bookend speakers at Wesley Chapel High School's graduation, have reminisced about the good times: the bad batch of banana muffins made at 4:30 a.m. that still draw laughs, the practical jokes, the scrapbooks crammed with photos, the hugging and squealing after hearing they finished at the top of their class.
But for salutatorian Katie Diaz, valedictorian Natalie Wells and the rest of the Class of 2008, their high school years are also defined by the three empty chairs on the back row.
Draped with pink roses and programs, they would have held the three seniors whose lives were cut short in car accidents this school year.
There was one for Matthew Laidley, who aimed to take the most advanced placement courses in school history and become a rocket scientist. He was a passenger in an Isuzu Trooper driven by a classmate that rolled over near the school less than a month after classes began. Two other chairs represented Tabatha Pastrana, a day care worker who planned to study journalism at the University of Miami, and her friend Kristin Gaskin, who wanted to be a psychologist. Both girls were killed a month ago when Tabatha's car flipped on Interstate 75.
Katie and Natalie, both close friends with Matthew, said his death affected the rest of the school year.
"It was one of those things that rock your world," Katie said. "We kind of helped each other through it."
"We experienced pain at Wesley Chapel High School," said senior class president Christina Choe. But "those pains have made us stronger."
Administrators placed the roses in the back row, behind the students. They didn't call the dead students' names but did prepare their diplomas for families.
Indeed, Matthew wouldn't have wanted that, said his best friend, Matthew Passardi.
Had he been there, "he would have made a big joke about it," Passardi said.
Matthew Laidley's mother, Maria, was among the crowd at the Sun Dome. She said earlier in the week that her son would have wanted her there. She also wanted to see his friends.
"It's almost like this is the creme de la creme of who we want our kids to be," she said of the Class of 2008.
After the ceremony, assistant principal Jennifer Crosby scooped up the rose, diploma and extra programs and scanned the crowd for the Laidleys, but they had left. "I don't want to be a big fat wet blanket," Maria Laidley said earlier this week.
Despite the theme of death and loss, the day was marked mainly by the traditional trappings of graduation. Girls in 4-inch stiletto heels gingerly negotiated the stage steps. Boys did victory dances similar to end zone celebrations. Principal Andrew Frelick proudly announced that he had become a grandfather that morning when granddaughter Rylie, all 9 pounds and a quarter ounce of her, arrived at 7:30 a.m.
As a result, he said, he'll always remember the Class of 2008.
Lisa Buie can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 909-4604.