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CHS graduates take steps toward the future

Well, he did it, as if there was any doubt in Al Harris’ mind.

On Thursday afternoon Al, with the assistance of two friends, Ian Horn and Isia Garcia, stood up from his wheelchair and walked across the stage to receive his diploma from Claremont High School. The crowd went wild.

Al’s odyssey began last summer with a tragic accident during his first professional motocross race that left him paralyzed. That was followed by months-long, sometimes painful rehabilitation and the stubborn determination that he was going to “walk” at his own graduation.

As he stood up, all of his classmates and teachers gave him the standing ovation he so deserves, but he almost had to sit back down because his blood pressure dropped, making him briefly unsteady. “Once I got set, I was good,” Al said later. As he walked up the ramp toward a line of CUSD officials and his diploma, three television crews recorded the moment, along with several other photographers. It was more like a red carpet event than a high school graduation.

Asked about what this day meant to him, Al said that if he makes up his mind to do something, “I work hard to get to that goal.”

Al had an entire entourage in attendance, including his extended family, his neurosurgeon, physical therapist and many of the members of the CHS mountain biking team, of which he was a star racer before the accident.

Of course it wasn’t just Al Harris’ big day—the class of 2019 included 572 graduates from Claremont High School, 17 from San Antonio High School and 30 from Claremont Adult School. Many others in the crowd undoubtedly had their own stories of hardship and overcoming adversity that made this day all the better.

Teresita Bueno-Jurado, class representative of SAHS, recalled how poor grades and attendance meant she had to attend San Antonio, a school she “did not always like.” But here she was four years later giving one of three commencement addresses and earning the now cherished degree.

CHS Principal Brett O’Connor gave a speech about the pitfalls of striving for perfectionism, which was apropos as he inadvertently spoke before valedictorian Ryan Vuong. Mr. O’Connor duly noted this faux pas as an example of the veracity of his message.

Other speakers included Danya Farah, president of the CHS class of 2019, Ayman Taleb, ASB president, Jason Wei, salutatorian, and SAHS Principal Sean Delgado.

There were two musical tributes, a very personal rendition of Stephen Sondheim’s “Goodbye for Now” by Grace Peña and an electrifying keyboard performance of Franz Liszt’s “La Campanella.”

One at a time, the seniors waited for their names to be called, then received their diplomas, officially ending their free public school education. Some were stoic, others overjoyed as they returned to their seats.

When the final name was called and Mr. O’Connor instructed the class to turn their tassels, a few of the new graduates threw their mortarboards into the air as friends and relatives, with many bouquets of flowers, descended onto the field for much deserved congratulations.

“It was exciting,” Al’s mother Peggy Harris said the day after gradation. “I was trying to shoot a video but I could not stop shaking. I am so happy for him.”

The family had a party planned for Sunday, but first Al was taking a day off while they got the place ready for guests.

“I asked him ‘Now that graduation is over, what will your next goal be?’ and Al responded, ‘Mom do you really have to ask? I want to ride a motorcycle.’”

—Steven Felschundneff

steven@claremont-courier.com