MARYSVILLE — This is the class that eagerly awaited senior year, when they would have front-row seats on game days. Those who didn’t play a sport were likely to be cheering on the team or making music with the band.
It’s the class that turned up the volume at pep rallies and dances, laughed at their own antics and built lasting friendships.
It’s also the class that pulled together after six students were shot in the school cafeteria freshman year. Five of the teens died, including the shooter.
Four years later, gathered together to celebrate finishing high school, students reflected on a past that includes tragedy and spoke of the future with hope.
The Marysville Pilchuck High School Class of 2018 graduated Wednesday evening during a ceremony at Angel of the Winds Arena in Everett.
Friends and family cheered loudly as the graduates entered the arena, until they all took their seats. Applause followed for each of the 289 graduates as they walked across the stage and received their diplomas.
An empty chair in the front row represented the young people who should have been there.
“We will carry these classmates in our hearts as we walk across this stage tonight,” senior class President Susana Barbosa said in a speech.
The Class of 2018 leaves a legacy of resilience, she said.
“You are strong,” she said. “You are MP Strong and there is nothing you can’t do.”
An empty desk
On Oct. 24, 2014, a freshman began shooting in the Marysville Pilchuck cafeteria. Freshmen Gia Soriano, Zoe Galasso, Shaylee Chuckulnaskit and Andrew Fryberg were killed. Nate Hatch was shot but survived. The shooter, Jaylen Fryberg, turned the gun on himself.
“I never expected at the age of 14 to write a eulogy for a lifelong friend who I thought would be graduating with me today,” Brianna Jason said in a speech Wednesday. She was close to Soriano.
She switched schools to get a fresh start, but there was no forgetting. She returned to Marysville Pilchuck.
“I wanted to spend my senior year and graduate with the people that I had gone through the toughest part of my life with,” she said.
This class shared something most can’t comprehend.
Mckenzie Justice and Catherine Haughian, both 18, grew up in Marysville and lost friends that day.
“Freshman year was terrible,” Justice said Tuesday. “That’s when I didn’t know if I’d make it to graduation.”
They found strength in friendships.
“I just wanted to be around people who experienced the same thing as me,” Justice said. “As hard as they try, people can’t understand unless they lived it.”
Haughian fell behind and did extra work to catch up. A number of her peers did the same. It was hard going back to school. Nothing felt normal.
“In first period I sat right next to Gia, and then there was just an empty desk,” Haughian said.
They’re much more aware of others now, they said. Mckenzie watches for odd social media posts or text messages. If something worries her, she reaches out.
Marysville Pilchuck is not a scary place, they said. For them, it was where people listened and truly understood.
Justice wants to be a nurse. Haughian aims to be an elementary or special education teacher.
They have many happy high school memories. They arrived hours early to get good seats at packed football games, piled into carpools to away basketball games, and sang their school’s fight song at the top of their lungs.
They helped put together the 2017-18 yearbook.
There were tough decisions to make.
The photos of the victims who would have graduated with them are included with the senior class. The shooter’s is not.
The yearbook students, nearly all seniors, talked about a removable memorial insert of some kind.
No inserts, they decided. This isn’t something that can be separated from the rest of their story.
Cheyenne Coe, 18, grew up in Marysville. She and Zoe Galasso were childhood friends. When Coe’s mother and stepfather married in 2012, Coe was the maid of honor and Galasso the flower girl in a backyard wedding. A year later, Galasso helped brainstorm names for Coe’s younger sister.
Coe still celebrates Galasso’s birthday on Feb. 22. She has a framed photograph of her friend that hangs with an angel at the top of the Christmas tree each year.
Earlier this week, she opened a gift from Galasso’s mom: a guardian angel visor clip for graduation. There was a note to remind Coe that Galasso will always watch over her.
There were times when it was hard to see through the grief to what came next. Coe relied on her mom and friends.
“I knew I’d get through it,” Coe said Monday. “I knew I’d make it to graduation.”
Some students transferred to other schools or alternative programs, but most found their way through, she said.
“This is something where we said, ‘We have to rise above. We have to prove we can be strong,’” she said. “… Even though we’ve lost a lot, we really are looking forward and working for a brighter future in the way that’s right for each of us.”
She’s heading to University of Washington Bothell to work toward becoming an emergency room nurse. She decided on the career freshman year, while waiting at the hospital for news about the students who had been shot.
Coe hopes others continue to honor those lives.
“Just remember them,” she said. “We lost some very special people in a way that wasn’t fair to them, or to anyone. Just don’t forget.”
Their own stories
Young people have walked together in remembrance, arm-in-arm with one another and their families. They planted thousands of tulips a year after the deaths. This past October, seniors went to breakfast and walked around the campus on the 24th.
A bench in memory of Soriano overlooks Port Gardner Bay from Legion Memorial Park in Everett, a peaceful place to remember a sweet, soft-spoken young woman.
Galasso filled sketchbooks with her artwork. It has been shared, including a peace symbol with the message “Make Love, Not War” she drew not long before the shooting.
Chuckulnaskit was an outgoing, athletic teen remembered as fearless and persistent. Her family described her as someone who had “faith that could move mountains.”
Andrew Fryberg was a natural athlete and a caring friend and brother. His loved ones remember an outgoing young man who was always smiling.
High school counselor Scott Stokes finds himself thinking of the parents. His sons graduated from Marysville Pilchuck. He can’t imagine losing them to violence.
“I hurt for them as a parent,” he said. “You didn’t send them to the battlefield. You sent them to school.”
This is the last graduation Stokes will attend as a counselor. He’s retiring from Marysville Pilchuck after 38 years.
It’s a school with a refreshing, diverse group of students, he said. In many ways, the Class of 2018 is like any other. But what they lived through freshman year sets them apart.
“You hear them say they don’t want this to define them, and yet they’re survivors of a school shooting,” said Stokes, 62. “But I get what they mean. They don’t want it to be their whole story. Like any graduating students, they want to make their own stories.”
His wish for them is to be healthy, happy and hopeful.
The graduates turned to family, teachers, counselors, pastors, coaches and others over the past four years.
“A lot of people deserve so much credit for helping these kids in ways that we will never be able to measure,” Stokes said.
Marysville Pilchuck’s School Resource Officer Chris Sutherland spoke at Wednesday’s ceremony. He held back tears more than once, as he told them how proud he was. Sutherland was one of the first to respond after the shooting.
“You are all my heroes,” he said.
Former superintendent Becky Berg stepped to the podium, and urged the audience to vote for school bonds to create safer learning spaces. She removed her graduation robe about halfway into the speech. Underneath she was wearing a T-shirt that read “NOT. ONE. MORE.,” a slogan that urges an end to gun violence.
When their turn came, the student speakers thanked those who have been there for them. They smiled as they addressed the room from the stage.
“It is not by chance that we are here tonight but because there were people in our lives who pushed and encouraged us, and our hard work,” said Sarah Turral, one of four valedictorians.
Cece Watson challenged her peers to embrace change and leave their comfort zones, because “if we all stood and spoke together, the roar of our voices could be the most powerful voice this nation has heard.”
Catherine Baxter shared a similar sentiment in her speech. There is a lot of work to be done, and they can be the ones to do it, she said. They should never underestimate their power to make the world a better place.
The Class of 2018 faced the unthinkable and got through it together, Baxter said.
“There are trials we faced with each other … ” she said. “I know that a lot of us will never see each other again. But for this moment, for one more day, we are a family.”
Kari Bray: 425-339-3439; email@example.com.