'We took back our school': Oxford High School seniors graduate after tragic year

·4 min read
Oxford High School students take selfies as their graduation ceremony begins at Pine Knob Music Theatre on Thursday, May 19, 2022, as 414 Oxford High School seniors participated in graduation ceremonies.
Oxford High School students take selfies as their graduation ceremony begins at Pine Knob Music Theatre on Thursday, May 19, 2022, as 414 Oxford High School seniors participated in graduation ceremonies.

Sitting in a drizzle of light rain at Pine Knob Music Theatre, 414 Oxford High School seniors donned navy blue gowns and yellow-gold tassels as they prepared to walk across the stage to receive their diplomas Thursday.

High school graduation is often bittersweet. Seniors say goodbye to their hometown and friends and prepare to start college or full-time jobs. For the graduating students at Oxford High School, it's far more complex.

Their senior year was defined by a mass shooting that killed and injured friends and family. In the aftermath, they've had to work through unimaginable emotional trauma and fight for memorials, increased security measures and sufficient mental health services. Not to mention, they were dealing with the stress of AP classes and applying to college.

Oxford Principal Steven Wolf began the ceremony by naming those who were killed in the Nov. 30, 2021, shooting: Justin Shilling, Madisyn Baldwin, Tate Myre and Hana St. Juliana.

Thousands in the crowd quieted their thunderous cheers for a moment of silence.

Kylie Ossege, the last injured student to leave the hospital, spoke to graduates on Thursday.

“When I think of an Oxford Wildcat, I think of being strong," she said. "We have held each other up. ... Despite the challenges given to us this year, we took back our school.”

Crowd members wore "Oxford Strong" shirts, a slogan that took over social media, billboards and neighborhood signs after the shooting.

The slogan has become a mantra for the Class of 2022, Ossege said.

"In the past few months, we have all endured a vast amount of pressure, but we have held each other up and supported one another," she said. "Oxford Strong means to push through, overcome and stand tall, while at the same time knowing how and when to ask for help. Because being able to ask for help shows great strength."

Watch: Oxford High School graduation at Pine Knob Music Theatre

More: Oxford schools reverses course, hires firms for independent review of shooting

The graduating class will be remembered for their love and compassion, Wolf said. He urged the now-former students to live in the present — they know better than anyone that life is precious, yet fleeting.

"You've also suffered a great loss this school year, experiencing the most painful thing any high school student could ever possibly experience," Wolf said. "But I still urge you to smile. Smile because you're here right now, and you're graduating today. Smile and enjoy this moment because you've overcome so much together. Smile and enjoy this moment, because you have so much to be proud of, of yourself and of each other."

Justin and Madisyn, both 17, were supposed to graduate this year. Their names were listed alongside those of their classmates in the graduation ceremony program.

Wolf honored Madisyn and Justin individually, inviting their parents up to the stage to accept their diplomas and a framed cap and gown.

The crowd offered a roaring standing ovation for each student.

"Madisyn carried herself with a positive and radiant energy that everybody could feel when she walked into the room," Wolf said. "Her studies were so important to her and she aimed for excellence in everything she did. ... We have no doubt that she was on a path to do some incredible things in her life.

"Justin always looked wide-eyed at the future, and was always eager to get out there and to make a difference. Justin was honest, trustworthy, resilient and dependable. Justin's smile and laugh are contagious and his sense of humor and wit were epic."

The senior chamber choir sang "Found/Tonight," a song released by Lin-Manuel Miranda and Ben Platt in honor of the Marjory Stoneman Douglas students and their charge for gun reform following the 2018 shooting at the Parkland, Florida, high school.

"With two years of COVID, and the tragedy of Nov. 30 ... (you have been) challenged like no other class would have been challenged," said Tom Donnelly, Oxford board of education president. "For the rest of your lives, I hope you realize that who you are and how you are is as important as what you do."

Ossege thanked not just her classmates, but the entire Oxford community for banding together over the past six months.

"Throughout these past few months, we helped one another," she said. "And when I say we, I mean first responders, students, teachers, administrators, parents, neighbors, family and friends. These people are all courageous. They are brave for one another. They are heroes."

Staff writer Lily Altavena contributed to this report. Contact Emma Stein: estein@freepress.com and follow her on Twitter @_emmastein.

This article originally appeared on Detroit Free Press: Oxford High School seniors graduate after tragic year