‘You have persevered’: Thompson graduation ceremony honors class of 2024

Published 8:28 am Wednesday, May 22, 2024

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By ALEC ETHEREDGE | Publisher 

BIRMINGHAM – Standing at the podium inside a crowded Bartow Arena on Tuesday night, May 21, Thompson High School Senior Class President Abigail Bess stood proudly as she addressed her classmates one final time in a moment that carried a weight of emotion for her.

She stood proudly because she knew her mom Deanna Bess, who passed away in 2021, was looking down proudly on her and the entire class of 2024 as they prepared for one of the biggest moments of their lives.

“When my mother passed away, it felt like the world stopped,” she said. “My mom was such a huge part of my life and in many of the lives in this room. She cared so much for each of us and loved being a part of our school. I can without a doubt say she would be so proud of each of you.”

An involved member of the school and community, Deanna saw this year’s senior class grow through their years in Alabaster City Schools, and Abigail rejoiced in that experience as she reflected on the graduating class’s journey to a special night.

It was a night filled with inspiring words from city officials to Alabaster City Schools leaders and even the Voice of the Crimson Tide, Chris Stewart, who shared his own inspiring journey.

A member of a graduating class of 14 people, he joked that the front row at Thompson’s graduation was bigger than his entire senior class before addressing 563 seniors from “the best high school in Alabama” for his keynote address.

“It’s important what you’ve done to this point,” he said. “You have persevered. Young lady, who is your class president, I feel for you, losing your mother. I was a senior at Central Park when my mother passed away two blocks away from where we are tonight at UAB hospital. Dr. Kirkland, who the clinic was named for, was her surgeon. He’s wonderful, he’s the best, but it was her time. I had to persevere my senior year without my best friend.”

That, however, was just the start of Stewart’s journey of perseverance that served as a strong example of fighting for this year’s senior class.

“I thought that would be the toughest thing I ever encountered,” Stewart said. “Six years ago last month, I went to bed at midnight and woke up 12 hours later. I was maybe the last person in Birmingham to find out that I suffered a stroke in my sleep. Sixteen months after that, I found out I had 95 percent blockage in the artery in the heart that is referred to as the widowmaker.”

After successful heart surgery, he ultimately got an infection that led to every major organ in his body starting to shut down, causing him to drop from 160 pounds to 115.

“My family was told, ‘You probably need to come tell him goodbye. He’s not going to make it,’” Stewart recalled. “Now, I realize I’m not much to look at, but when you put it into context of 115 pounds and everything else just four and a half years ago, suddenly I’m not too bad looking. I’m grateful. I persevered at a level I never thought possible and I never thought I would need to do so, but you never know what’s in store for you.”

Now, he is in the midst of the biggest professional year of his life—a trip to Pasadena, California to call the Rose Bowl for the first time, a trip to the Final Four to call a historic first appearance by the Alabama basketball team and now, his dream job calling Alabama football as the lead play-by-play announcer for the Crimson Tide.

“Six years can make quite a difference,” he said. “A lot of things can happen in six years. A lot can happen in four. When you reflect back, make sure your reflection is positive and not regret. And I say that to you, really, four years from now. The past four years are in the past no matter how they went. No matter how great they were or whatever struggles you may have had, they’re in the past.”

He went on to conclude with a comparison to a famous George W. Bush speech, saying, “I will end by simply saying, in reference in a comment I said I wasn’t going to make earlier about how I finished at Montevallo, for those of you finishing with honors, I congratulate you, for those of you finishing barely with a C average, take heart, you too can be the voice of the Crimson Tide one day.”

Thompson principal Michael Lee said this year’s senior class is built for perseverance and is ready to handle anything thrown their way, similar to his friend in Stewart.

“The next chapter will be filled with many choices, decisions and opportunities,” he said. “The challenges you face will not always have any easy answer, but will help form your character, sense of responsibility and purpose. To say that I am proud of you would be an understatement. Graduation from high school is an event that you will never forget. I want you to remember, though, that today is only the first step in many milestones you will reach in life.”

He highlighted the class’s $21 million in scholarships, the graduation rate, the success in fine arts and their championship pedigree in sports as examples of how the success at Thompson has prepared them for this next step in their journey, before highlighting three pieces of advice.

“Set goals, set goals that challenge you and make a plan to achieve them; take responsibility for your own actions because acceptance and responsibility leads to a strong work ethic and success in all facets of your life; and Never give up, no matter what adversity or obstacles you face,” he said.

Valedictorian Ashlyn Gamble carried on with the theme of facing adversity and being prepared for what comes at them next, highlighting the past four years, including a new way of learning through the pandemic as freshmen in 2020.

“Through all of these challenges, each and every person in this class has succeeded in their own path,” Gamble said. “At a school this large, there’s bound to be a disconnect of experience, and while no experience is the same, each one has just as much importance as the other. After tonight, everyone will go on their own path. Some will further their education, while others will go straight to the work force. And while I can’t definitively say what everyone’s outcome will be, I can and will incur from the last four years that we will find success wherever we go. I encourage us to follow our dreams and dream big.”

She then added in a joke that former principal Dr. Wesley Hester made about building statues for every millionaire from Thompson High School, encouraging them to dream big and reach for the stars.

“We are entering adulthood and will now face challenges independently,” she said. “In our time of adversity, know that opportunities will be missed and mistakes will be made, but know they do not define us or limit our successes. Thompson class of 2024, it has been a pleasure to be on this journey with you and I am excited to see where each individual path takes us. For the last time, it’s a great day to be a Warrior.”

In addition to the excitement about their futures ahead, patience was also a key message from both Abigail and Alabaster Mayor Scott Brakefield.

Brakefield, who saw his twin boys graduate during the night, talked about the importance of not being in a rush during this stage of life.

“Slow down. Be present. Be where your feet are,” he said. “The world is in a big hurry, the days are long, the years are short. Enjoy your journey, enjoy the process. Take it in, take it slow and enjoy this next phase of your life.”

Abigail built on that in her closing remarks, asking the class of 2024 to be in the moment and hold onto it for as long as they can.

“Today, I want you to wait,” she said. “Wait for just one moment and realize what today symbolizes. So, for just one moment, wait. Look at your classmates and your family and realize what you’ve built here. Today marks the beginning of the rest of our lives. You’ve built a family, a family that has been by your side through every up and down. You’ve waited for this moment all your life, and in the process, you may have missed what was going on right in front of you, so for just one moment, wait.”

Alabaster City Schools Superintendent Dr. Wayne Vickers built off of that, showcasing just how fast time has gone by, highlighting that in 2011, when they were kindergartners, Siri was introduced on the iPhone, Minecraft was released and Instagram was only a few months old.

“Who else feels old after that?” he asked, before transitioning into their high school days. “Fast forward just a few short years to 2020, ninth grade. You all remember what happened then. A global pandemic upended the world as we knew it. Education was greatly impacted, we all learned differently that year, and we had to pivot many, many times. Yet, you pivoted with poise and positivity. We all kept moving forward. The class of 2024 met the moment. Your perseverance paid off and for that, you should be proud. I couldn’t be more proud of your accomplishments.”

He then shared tips for success, advising the senior class to trust their instincts and make good choices, develop a strong moral compass, think big and take risks, and surround yourself with the right people.

As many stated throughout the night, the last four years have prepared them to act on those tips, and for Abigail, it was a full circle moment, as they came together one last time, surrounded by friends and family, to celebrate in their achievments.

“This year has been full of excitement and growth,” Abigail said. “It feels like just yesterday, we were walking into the first day of kindergarten ready to take on the world. Now look at us, here we are on graduation day, ready to walk the stage one last time. One last time in the same room, talking to each other and laughing. How in the world did we get here?”