Coda Russell flipped his head to the side deftly tossing the yellow tassel on his mortarboard from the right to left as if shaking off all the trials of the past four years.
Grinning to a packed Ninilchik School gymnasium, the tall, broad-shouldered, 17-year-old graduate began descending the stairs from the stage, his diploma in hand, his future before him a panoply of possibility.
Thirteen graduated at Ninilchik on Sunday afternoon. If the Class of 2003 was small, it was apparent from the turnout that its importance to this quiet Kenai Peninsula community was not.
They came to see their best and brightest take those first steps into adult life, wishing them well wherever they wander, yet harboring hopes that some might return, bringing with them their college-educated brains and their exuberant youth fresh with new experience.
The afternoon's most emotional moment came as valedictorian Whitney Leman began to address her classmates, parents and townsfolk. She'd barely begun when water welled in her eyes.
"It was 50 years ago tomorrow that my Granny Ed graduated from high school," she said, as tears began cascading down her cheeks. She had to stop. A long pause followed as she stood stoically composing herself. It wasn't easy, seeing that virtually everyone in the audience was at or close to tears in empathy.
"This is sort of weird," she offered, before halting once more.
"You can do it!" someone shouted after what must have seemed to Leman like an eternity.
Whitney smiled and bravely started again. She said it "boggled my mind" to imagine all the things her grandmother, Ninilchik resident Edna Steik, had done and experienced since she stepped across a high school stage in Fairbanks in 1953.
Whitney remembered watching others graduate before her. Now that it was her turn, she implored her undergraduate friends to remember those "underrated moments that make living worthwhile." She thanked both those who'd carried her, as well as those who'd let her fall.
Life is like a basketball game, she said. Much depends on that first step onto the hardwood.
Whitney, the daughter of Jamie and Dan Leman -- first cousin to Lt. Gov. Loren Leman -- is heading to college. Her mother says she's leaning toward the University of Alaska, which has offered her a four-year scholarship and free rent for two years. However, coaches in Oregon are pursuing her for her prowess on the basketball court.
High school wasn't necessarily easy for another Ninilchik senior -- Coda Russell. His mother, Brenda Firman, said her son had overcome learning difficulties that made reading and mathematics a struggle. She said she was proud of his achievement.
Coda was more matter-of-fact about it.
"I just did the best I could at whatever I could and crossed my fingers most of the time," he said, adding that it wasn't so much a matter of finding ways to compensate as it was taking direction and studying a lot. His hard work paid off.
This fall, Coda will head to the Paul Hall Center for Maritime Training and Education at Piney Point, Md., where he will spend the next year hitting the books and preparing for a career at sea.
"It'll be like cramming four years into one," he said. "We're not allowed to leave the campus for about a year, not even during Christmas or anything."
When he's done, he'll be looking forward to great pay and a lot of adventurous sea time, he said. But Coda's not planning to stay at sea forever. In fact, he wants to return to the Ninilchik area to live.
"I plan to stick with the merchant marine, save a lot of money and retire early," he said, adding he expects to inherit some land near Clam Gulch. "I've got to build a house," he said.
Coda managed to accumulate sufficient academic credits in the first three years of high school to open his senior-year schedule for the activities that interested him most -- shop classes and the practical skills they offered, especially metal sculpting and woodworking. He's even become something of an artist with metal, he said, and has pieces around the school and has sold some to teachers.
Also graduating Sunday were salutatorian Kasey Panhuis, Kelsey Deiman, Carlise Eck, Victoria Florey, Amy Klapak, Lauren Barry, Maria Johnson, Paul Ottobre, Coda's brother Levi Russell, Steven Miller and one junior who graduated early, Aaron Berger.
Loren Leman attended the graduation and gave the commencement address. He encouraged the graduates to be participants in America's democracy, not spectators. He urged them to vote and to stand up against injustice. Graduation, he said, was a time for passing the torch of freedom.
"Carry it high, carry it proudly and never let it go out," he said.
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