High school graduations are inherently moving ceremonies, markers of achievement and of new, richer beginnings, of long lives to be lived, of successes to be claimed, joys and loves to be treasured–all those things Curtis Gray was imagining and tasting and planning for before he was gunned down in Palm Coast on April 13.
It was inevitable and necessary that his memory would fill the Ocean Center in Daytona Beach Thursday evening as Flagler Palm Coast’s Class of 2019 held its commencement ceremony, not long after the Matanzas High School Class of 2019 had done the same: Gray had attended both schools, played sports for both schools, left his mark and his cheer’s echoes around both schools. His name, and his mother Carmen, heard that echo in return Thursday evening as he was granted an honorary degree.
“Year by year we have faced losses to illness, suicide, car wrecks, and yet we continued to move forward,” Flagler Palm Coast High School senior Tyler Perry told his graduating class from the stage, “but this year, we were confronted with the harsh reality of gun violence. We want to take a moment to remember Curtis Gray who should be graduating with us today, but who was a victim of gun violence earlier this year.”
Carmen Curtis walked onto the stage, and Superintendent Jim Tager handed her her son’s honorary degree.
“I don’t know if I even have words that are adequate enough to capture that moment,” Carmen Gray said this morning. “I can tell you this: I was trembling physically, trembling on stage, not from fear, but from the overwhelming outpouring of love and support.” There were cheers, there were emotions, there was regret, and for Carmen there was an even stronger presence she felt then and there: “You know you have a rush of emotions in a moment like that. I think that the level of regret of Curtis not physically being there was somewhat overshadowed by the fact that, I feel like, because he was a track star, a track athlete, that he passed the baton to me. So it was an honor to be there for him.”
Carmen returned to her seat next to Tager’s wife Jodi, who took her hand and hugged her, perhaps unwittingly replicating her son’s presence in an equally powerful way: “I’m a touchy touchy, lovey lovey person, I raised my son that way,” Carmen said. “One of the teachers told me he never came into her class without giving her a hug, asking her how her day was doing.” Thursday evening, Carmen felt her son’s hugs amplified through those surrounding her at the Ocean Center, though she’s felt that way since that night in mid-April and the days that followed: there’s scarcely been a day when she’s been out in the community, when she hasn’t been touched by the same kind of outpouring, by that mixture of hugs and memories of Curtis others share with her.
“A ton of support, a ton of love, lots and lots of prayers,” Carmen says, “I go out in public and I can’t even make it though the day without a parent telling me a story about my son.” So it was as Perry spoke Thursday evening.
“Ms. Gray, You are one of the strongest people I’ve ever met, and I want you to know that we stand with you in the fight against violence,” Perry continued. “While nothing we do can fill the space of a lost child or loved one, all of us can extend a helping hand – to remind those grieving that we are here for them, that we are praying for them, that the love they felt for those they lost endures, not just in their memories, but also in ours. Life may be full of pain, but we are strong enough to handle it when we stand together.”
Immediately after his speech, Carmen sent Perry a text telling him “what an awesome job he did, he made me so proud.” The two had worked side by side in preparation for Curtis’s memorial in Town Center on April 28. The evening before, Carmen Gray had presented a track athlete and student, Jacob Miley, with the first scholarship in Curtis’s name, with money raised by the FPC track team.
There was plenty to celebrate Thursday evening for both high schools, not least the 88 percent graduation rate they’ve reached (it may be higher when this year’s numbers are tabulated), and recent US News & World Report ranking that placed both schools in the top tier of the 17,245 public high schools ranked this year.
“I think everyone at both schools, to include students, teachers, staff, and administrators should be proud of where they stand on a state and national level,” Tager said earlier this month. “I also thank our parents and other significant adults who continually challenge our students to seek more advanced and demanding classes. I believe our students are seeing they can both do this work, and succeed at doing it.”
If Gray had been at his graduation Thursday evening, “I know what he would have done,” Carmen says. “He would have been screaming at the top of his voice, he was a huge encourager. He had this thing that he did, he would clap, shake his head up and down, ‘yes, that’s right, you’re doing great, be great,’ and that was his thing. The kids looked forward to his entry into any room. He was a huge encourager. It wasn’t just to the kids.” He was the same way with teachers and his coaches. “He just would have been very exuberant.”
He was, it seems, living up to the spirit of his class.
“The apathy of the young is a widespread falsehood,” Perry said to close his speech. “Every day, we hear our parents and grandparents fretting about ‘the kids,’ bemoaning social media distractions and lamenting alleged self-absorption. The truth is, our generation is a lot more hopeful than that. While we are daunted by complicated problems of the day–climate change, terrorism, and income inequality–we have shown evidence of an active social conscience. Our generation is engaged and passionate about the future of our country, and we will not repeat the same mistakes of those before us, we will not grow complacent. We will not sit idly by, We, the class of 2019, will seize the day.”
To Carmen, her son Curtis was, is, very much part of the Class of 2019. “He just got to the finish line a little faster,” she says.