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School's first grads walk into history

By MICHELE MILLER, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published May 26, 2002

Brandon Alipour couldn't wipe the grin off his face. It had been a good run at Mitchell High School these past two years. During his senior year he had been captain of the school's bowling team and a member of SWAT (Students Working Against Tobacco). Now he was graduating -- cum laude. But for Brandon, the main claim to fame, the thing that made him a most remarkable graduate, was his name.

"I'm the first graduate in the history of Mitchell High School," he said, still smiling, "I tell everybody, "I'm the first graduate -- the first to walk across the stage.' "

And when it comes time to throw those caps in the air, "Well," said Brandon, "I'm going to throw my cap and my gown."

The sun was setting and the near-full moon rising as the first graduating class of J. W. Mitchell High School -- 184 strong -- marched into the stadium to Pomp and Circumstance and the cheers of family and friends.

Together, they had garnered some $40,000 in scholarship money with 65 qualifying for the Florida Merit Scholarships and five getting a full ride with the Florida Academic Scholarship. Zack McLemore, who plans to attend Rice University next fall, was named a Commended Merit Scholar.

These students had been leaders at Mitchell for two years, since the school first opened, said Principal Tina Tiede, addressing the audience, "And it would be tough to let them go."

This was the class that had to let go of traditions from old schools and don new ones to become unified.

At times it wasn't easy.

At the first pep rally most of the students were wearing green and purple shirts -- the colors of their former schools -- Gulf and River Ridge high schools, said senior class sponsor Phil Altshuler. "Now it's all black and gold," he said.

This year seniors voted on who their honor speaker would be. Most held to the old tradition by choosing their class valedictorian, Chris McHale, who quoted from J.D. Salinger's Catcher in the Rye and praised his classmates for embracing change.

Their choice to hold commencement exercises outdoors in the football stadium rather than inside the school gymnasium was one that would help accommodate the families and friends of future classes, said Senior Class President Shannon Keller, referring to the 350 members of the class of 2003 and the roughly 600 who will graduate in 2004.

But it also worked out for the family of James Shanks -- 11 of whom came from such places as Naples, Massachusetts and Rhode Island to see the youngest son of Roger Shanks and Linda Lee collect his diploma. "I was in the first graduating class of my school -- Apponquet High School in Lakeville, Mass," said Lee, "So this is really special."

The class of 2002 was treated to a blending of the old and new: a delightful adaptation of '60s folk singer Pete Seeger's Where Have All the Flowers Gone by their class president Shannon Keller, and the opportunity to march out to their own class song, Green Day's Time of Your Life.

The graduates showed restraint until all had filed out of their seats and gathered in a group to collectively toss their caps. . . . and one lone gown.

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