Porterville High School's graduating seniors looked like a sea of orange and green as they waited Friday night for the start of their school's 123rd commencement at Jacob Rankin Stadium.
Waiting for the program to start, parents, families and loved ones packed the stands. One proud family all wore matching white T-shirts with orange and green writing in honor of their two graduates — cousins Adamaris Mendez and Arturo Lopez.
“I purposely didn't wear makeup tonight. I know I will cry,” said Cristal Lopez of Adamaris. “She's my only daughter. I've already been crying watching other people's Snapchat graduations.”
Next to them another family held a head-and-neck photograph of their daughter/granddaughter on a stick.
“We're very excited. Our daughter is speaking tonight. She kept her speech as a surprise from us,” said her mother Shelby Ortiz. “We just saw it on the program. We had no idea.”
Her father, Jose Ortiz said he has had anxiety all day and is sure it will really hit when he sees his daughter walking.
And, as if on cue, the playing of “Pomp and Circumstance” began and the seniors started walking down the track lined with green flags held by younger classmates, the sounds of air horns, shouts and happiness escalated.
Following the Posting of Colors by the Porterville Military Academy, and the Pledge of Allegiance led by Brianne Franco, Olivia Ortiz, senior class president, welcomed everyone before talking to her classmates.
“Today we become adults. Today we take our next steps into the real world. It's scary, nerve wrecking, but most of all, exciting,” said Senior Class President, Olivia Ortiz. “This year has been very challenging and unfair for most of us as we all know, and a lot was taken from us during this pandemic, but we are coming back strong and ready to continue the journey.”
Once Ortiz was done, the school's 15 valedictorians — Clarissa Allen, Elizabeth Alvarado, Rachel Castro Garcia, Emily Chaidez Zepeda, Natalie Cornejo Rodriguez, Leah Flores, Melanie Frias, Samantha Gonzalez Curiel, Vanessa Makhlouf, Aaron Morales, Lorieellen Rodriguez, Luis Rojas, Isobela Stadtherr, Yulissa Tapia Cabrera and Carson Wallace — were introduced.
“This is one of the biggest moments in our lives, and as we close this chapter, we are only left with sweet memories and how much our high school experience has left a mark on our lives and character,” said Leah Flores during her speech and talked about high school experiences before ending with “Our future is bright and colorful, so let's change the world.”
Vanessa Makhlouf also thanked teachers for helping them “reach mountain tops where the summits initially appeared foggy.”
“But we did it,” Frias said. “I think everyone should be proud of the work that they've accomplished and the fact that despite all these obstacles that got thrown in our way, you are here, you are ready to grab your diploma and move past your high school memories and into new ones.”
One by one, they each said a few words, some speaking in English and some in Spanish. Many of them mentioning the COVID year and of how the class persevered.
Principal Jose Valdez once again took the microphone to congratulate the PHS Class of 2021 before thanking Porterville Unified School District, PHS faculty and staff, and students' families, and turning his attention to the students, thanked them again.
“Thank you for carrying forward the Panther traditions of academic excellence and being a person of character under the most trying and difficult of circumstances,” Valdez said. “This amazing class has weathered and overcome a pandemic and has demonstrated grit and perseverance.”
He then offered examples of the graduates' success stories, including one valedictorian, Aaron Morales, who was selected out of 18,500 students for a Quest Scholarship, and another valedictorian, Wallace, who is active in jazz band and choir yet had time to recently release his first single, “Drive.”
The class is filled with amazing students, Valdez said, and asked 41 students with 4.0 GPA or above — in addition to the 15 valedictorians, to stand. He then asked the 115 Biliteracy Seal students to stand.
And the Class of 2021 set a new school record, he said. “Forty-eight percent of the senior class have met the a-g requirements for entrance into a four-year college, breaking the all-time school record of 46 percent. In addition, seven students have signed with a branch of the military, and numerous others have been accepted to private, UC and State universities, he said as he mentioned the schools, among them Yale University. Valdez also talked about the school's band, choir and sports teams, and had everyone involved in sports stand as he talked about a number of EYL titles and the first ever Valley Championship for the City of Porterville in swimming won by the PHS boys swim team during the shortened year.
“This is truly an exceptional graduating class, both in and out of the classroom,” Valdez said. “On behalf of the Porterville High School administration, faculty and staff, you have been outstanding. You have made a difference. Best wishes and may all your dreams come true.”
Graduating seniors who were members of the Porterville Panther Band were called to leave their seats and join the band for the playing of the school's “Orange and Green” one last time.
And as the band played the alma mater, numerous people in the crowd could be seen waving the victory sign as they sang along, including Angela Fogle, who said she graduated from Porterville High exactly 45 years ago on the same night. Next to her, Maria Nunoz, said she too graduated from PHS many years ago. Last year her daughter graduated, next year a son will start at PHS, but this year, it was all about her son Randell Escalera who was graduating.
And once the band ended the song and the seniors returned to their seats, Valdez presented the class and one by one, starting with the valedictorians, they walked forward to be presented with their diplomas.
And after all the names had been called, Valdez once again addressed the Class.
“As principal of Porterville High School, I certify to the Board of Trustees and Superintendent that these seniors have met the requirements set forth by the Porterville Unified School District for graduation,” Valdez said. “Graduates, please move your tassel from the right to the left.”
And as they did, the crowd, once again, went wild.
“Ladies and gentlemen,” Valdez said. “I now present the Porterville High School Class of 2021.”