“Be bold. Be courageous. Be more like Sam Watkins.”
This was the concluding message from Kilgore High School Valedictorian Shrina Patel during Friday’s graduation, honoring her fellow student-athlete, classmate and friend who died Dec. 4 following a seizure.
Watkins’ Kilgore High School letter jacket was draped on an empty chair amongst her classmates, proudly displaying her favorite verse from the Bible, Philippians 4:13 – “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.”
And when it came time for Watkins’ name to be called, all 245 graduates stood up in unison to honor their classmate, chanting “Sam Strong” and “Go Dogs.”
After reminiscing all the ups and downs the Class of 2017 has had in their years in Kilgore ISD – from their first field trip to see ‘The Polar Express’ to Maude Laird Middle School – Katy Raby, along with Ryan Wayne, honored her classmate and teammate, saying, “Because of Sam we are stronger, closer and more of a family than ever before.”
The pair added their senior year was the year they learned they would be leaving the halls of KHS with another school legend: retiring KHS Principal Greg Brown.
As Sloan Berger and Lauren Rashidi told the packed R.E. St. John Memorial Stadium their classmates' aspirations, they had one final 'Thank You.'
“Perhaps the greatest thank you that we owe goes to our late classmate and friend, Samantha Watkins,” they said, sharing the microphone. “As we start the next chapter of our lives, we are all reminded to be ‘Sam Strong’ and live life to the fullest, which means that 245 of us have learned that our voices matter. Speak up and speak out, never be afraid to be yourself and dance if you feel like dancing, even if no one else is. We would like to thank Sam’s family for all the support and love that they have provided throughout the school year. We as the Class of 2017 promise to forever live everyday with Sam’s spirit and love of life. I know that I will never forget everything you did for the ones you love, and I hope that we can all make you proud. We love you, Sam.”
Friday was the day the seniors have had marked on their calendars since it was announced during their junior year.
“We were told to save the date of May 26. Right away, I put this date in my countdown app even though we had about 400 something days remaining,” KHS salutatorian Aqsa Javed said.
Those 400 days shrunk to zero, and Friday evening the KHS Class of 2017 took their seats in the stadium, clad in their red caps and gowns.
“When we began our high school careers in 2013, to many of us, this day seemed like it would never arrive… Now, we are here, hopefully as better versions of ourselves, ready to begin the next chapter of our lives,” Patel said. “We aren’t celebrating the end of an era but rather the beginning of our new lives.”
Both Patel and Javed reiterated the challenge Brown posed to the seniors during the Texas Scholars luncheon: Do not let high school graduation be the best achievement.
“Graduating high school isn’t the end, it’s only the beginning!” Javed said. “Do not let this be the biggest achievement of your life. Strive for more because every single one of you has the ability to change the world.”
The curiosity that drives each student, whether they have their post-high school lives planned out or not, propels them all to strive for success, she said.
“Do not let it burn out because it is our guide to greatness,” Javed continued. “Regardless of what our plans are, I can assure you without a doubt that every red gown in this crowd has the potential to achieve that greatness. How we approach this is what determines our end result.”
Patel encouraged her fellow graduates to embrace opportunities and continue no matter what.
“There is a whole world out there, and it is ours for the taking,” she said. “When opportunities present themselves, take them. Persevere through the bad experiences and learn from them, and always give back to those who help you during your journey.”
The lessons learned from key moments and people in their lives help shape the rest of their paths. Both Patel and Javed used their moments on stage to thank their friends, family members and teachers.
“First, I would like to thank the administrators and faculty that have pushed us to excel in all aspects of our high school careers,” Patel said. “To my friends, you have motivated me to do my best, and thanks for the memories that we have made in Mrs. Bates’ room, on the way to the state game, and the night of our senior prom. I would also like to thank the parents and family members who supported our decisions and helped us conquer any of the obstacles that we faced. And last but certainly not least, I would like to thank Samantha Watkins for teaching us to live our lives to the fullest and continuing to protect and watch over us.”
Adding thanks to her parents, siblings, friends, teachers and Watkins, Javed said, "All of you have helped to mold me into the person that is standing here in front of you today, and for that, I’m eternally thankful.”
Quoting Mark Twain, Patel said, “You get in life what you have the courage to ask for.”
Each student is equipped to face the world thanks to the growth they all experienced and the knowledge they have gained, Javed added.
“Class of 2017, after tonight, we will be saying our goodbyes and parting ways… I wish you all health, joy, and prosperity,” she concluded.