Centennial High School, Class of 2013, had 11 valedictorians. Each gave a speech during commencement at the Thomas & Mack Center on Friday night.
When I was in high school, we had one valedictorian. I think he had a B-minus average. During his speech, he said we should cross our fingers and hope the steel mills are hiring.
After the pomp but before the circumstance, the Centennial student body president invoked the name of Drake, who I learned from the young man sitting next to me is a Canadian rapper. I thought it was a college in Iowa.
Many of the valedictorians mentioned other role models. Kim Harrison, who I believe writes novels. Walt Disney. Jerry Rice. Einstein. The guy who developed the theory of relativity, not the brothers who developed the bagel company.
The Allen brothers, stars of the state finalist Bulldogs basketball team, both of whom will play ball (and study a lot) at Stanford, spoke of their teammates. At least Marcus did. Others mentioned their parents, their teachers, some other source of inspiration.
Genica Chow mentioned Kassidy Merritt.
Kassidy Merritt was a catcher for the state champion Centennial softball team two years ago when she was diagnosed with brain cancer. A rare kind of brain cancer that wraps around one’s brain stem. The inoperable kind.
I wrote about her then, about her experimental treatment, about the challenges — life-and-death challenges — that lie ahead on her road to recovery. Kassidy’s Road to Recovery. That’s what Kass’ mother calls her blog (kassidysroadtorecovery.blogspot.com).
During our visit two years ago, the last thing Kassidy did was play a song on her guitar. One of those hopeful, introspective songs. I told her I would come back to see how she was doing.
So I was sitting in Section 119, Row S on Friday night with a bunch of other Merritts and some Gonzalezes from Panama, which is where Massiel, Kassidy’s tireless mother, is from.
I listened to 11 valedictory speeches and two salutatory ones. The Centennial kids did a real nice job.
The message board said I could not save seats, and that I should refrain from using an air horn. And that I could reserve a commemorative DVD by texting a number on my smartphone.
But it was nice to spend two hours inside the Mack without once witnessing an ill-advised 3-point shot. And at 7:11 p.m., when the lady from the school district handed Kassidy her diploma and she was graduated with honors, everybody in Section 119, Row S cheered and pumped fists.
No one used an air horn. One of us wanted to.
Massiel Merritt got emotional, just as Kyle Merritt, Kassidy’s brother who is on the track and cross country teams at Boise State, said she would.
That’s just the way it is when you watch your kid go through what Kass has gone through — and what she probably will go through for another 10 years, because the drugs, even these experimental ones that cost so much, take time to do magic.
(I should point out that Ryan Merritt, Kassidy’s father and the principal at Stanford Elementary School, also was emotional. But it was harder to tell, because he was snapping pictures the whole time.)
Kassidy’s folks said she is down to 25 pills a day and has to go on the drip, her intravenous backpack, four times a day for an hour at a time. She soon will start sleeping with oxygen. But Kass has been stable for weeks. She’s taking fewer steroids. She’s lost weight. She went to her prom.
Her mom and dad brought air sickness bags to graduation. Kass didn’t need them. Stability is a good thing.
So is bowling a 200 game.
When I spoke with Kassidy afterward, she had U.S. currency pinned to her gown and a message that said “Never Give In” tattooed to her wrist. She hasn’t played softball since she got sick. But she was captain of the Centennial girls bowling team this season and rolled a 201 against Desert Oasis. She still plays violin and guitar. She plans to study biology at UNLV in the fall.
At the Senior Awards Ceremony, Centennial principal Trent Day presented Kassidy with an award for being successful and for being an inspiration. Her peers gave Kass a standing ovation.
So, yes, though she’s not a boastful person, she said she was proud of graduating with honors, and being named to the National Honor Society, and of her sports and of her music, and of fighting inoperable brain cancer, which, as she put it, is no small detail. Just ask those doctors at Johns Hopkins and the Mayo Clinic. They’ll tell you.
While the valedictorians spoke of beginnings and endings, of knowledge and pride, of milestones reached and milestones to strive for, of chapters to be written and of changing the world before their 10-year reunion, when I asked Kassidy Merritt what she envisioned 10 years down the road, she spoke of normalcy.
That’s it. She doesn’t want to change the world. Not now. Not yet. She just wants to be normal again.
“Living a regular life,” she said. “Yeah.”
She paused for a moment, but only for a moment, because this was Graduation Day and a bunch of Merritts and Gonzalezes were calling her name and she had to pose for pictures.
Las Vegas Review-Journal sports columnist Ron Kantowski can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 702-383-0352. Follow him on Twitter: @ronkantowski.