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Dying teen fulfills her dream of earning high school diploma

Published Aug. 28, 2005

As she stood on the Bell High School stage wearing a purple gown and mortarboard, applause from family and friends' standing ovation washing over her, a huge smile brightened the thin, tired face of Caitlin Huggins.

This was Huggins' graduation, a dream fulfilled by the 17-year-old through grit and determination. A battle with brain cancer is taking her life, but nothing will take away the diploma she clutched tightly.

"This ceremony is a celebration for your success as a student, but you are also a great teacher," said Gov. Jeb Bush, speaking Tuesday night at Huggins' special commencement in the Gilchrist County community. "We have your valuable lessons about faith _ above all else, faith _ perseverance and the power of the spirit to help us reach our goals."

Scores of people from this small North Florida community turned out to honor Huggins.

Huggins was diagnosed with cancer in 2001, the summer before her freshman year. There were periods of remission, but the day before this school year began, new tumors were discovered.

A doctor said nothing more could be done; she would die.

"She told the doctor, "Well, so are you. And it's all in God's hands. He's the only one who knows when we're going to die,' " said her guidance counselor and friend Dana Jones.

Chemotherapy has robbed Huggins of her hair, weight and vitality.

"I just like the fact that I graduated," was all she could say to a reporter.

It was May that Huggins determined her goal would be to graduate. She studied for the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test and took it in June while resting on an air mattress in principal Buddy Schofield's office. Because Huggins can hear men's voices better, Schofield took turns with his assistant and a teacher reading her the questions. It was one of the last times she attended school.

"She passed it, and it was such a fabulous day when we learned the score," Jones said.

Jones, 43, also homeschooled Huggins, helped her select a letterman's jacket and planned the graduation ceremony, writing the letter inviting the governor and his wife.

After the commencement, in a private meeting, the governor gave Huggins CDs of gospel artist Michael W. Smith, and first lady Columba Bush presented her with a crucifix from Rome.

Caitlin Huggins, is overcome with modesty as she listens to Gov. Jeb Bush speak of her courage during her graduation from Bell High School Tuesday as the governor's wife, Columba, smiles at the teenager. Huggins, 17, was diagnosed with brain cancer in 2001.