NEW PORT RICHEY — She wore no cap and no gown. But when she held the diploma above her head, the crowd gave its loudest roar of the night.
Debbie Harrigan was not surprised. Ridgewood High School's Class of 2008 has a special place in its heart for the classmate who didn't make it to Friday night's graduation: her son Jonathan.
He died Nov. 1 at the age of 17 when, authorities say, a driver pulled her car across U.S. 19 and into the path of his motorcycle.
The mother believes her son may have saved the life of his girlfriend, Krystale Fernandez, who was riding on the back, by swerving and trying to push her off before the collision.
Friday night, the mother beamed with pride over her son — and his classmates, and his school.
"If this is what's going out into the world," she said, "I'm proud."
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There's this old saying by an old Georgia politician named Zell Miller: If you walk down a country road and see a turtle sitting on a fence post, know this for sure:
He didn't get up there by himself.
Ridgewood High School valedictorian Matthew Chauncey shared that bit of wisdom Friday. He looked out at a sea of blue graduation caps and robes before him and saw, well, turtles.
"I would say we are all turtles," he said, "although some of us are very smart turtles."
It was supposed to be a night to honor the Class of 2008. But really, it was their night to honor, and thank, everyone else who had helped put them there.
Imagine, then, how much help it took for these 362 seniors to become the largest graduating class in Ridgewood High School's 30-year history.
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It's an annual rite of graduation: quoting someone else, someone famous and most likely dead.
But perhaps in future commencements, someone will quote Ridgewood class president Johnny Voss Jr.:
"High school's like your first girlfriend. At first you're excited about the new beginnings. Then halfway through, you're stuck. You want to escape. There's no way out. Complaint after complaint. Command after command. And when you least expect it … it ends. So you're depressed, you're sad, for three or four months.
"Until one day, you see her, the new woman of your dreams. And her name? College.
"She may be a bit expensive to take care of, but boy, oh boy, is she worth it."
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One by one they stood, the graduates of 2008, as principal Randall Koenigsfeld called their names.
There was running back Byronell Arline, who graduated as Pasco County's all-time rushing leader with 5,279 career yards.
There were Brittany Houser and Anne Correa, who earned high school diplomas at the same time they earned their associate's degrees in fine arts.
There was pole-vaulter Keari Brink, who won a state championship with a vault of 11 feet.
And there was, of course, Jonathan Harrigan.
"Jonathan's life has and continues to motivate us to succeed," the principal said. "He is with us at peace, and may God give us all peace."
Jamal Thalji can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 869-6236.