A day before graduating from Monroe High School, Ethan Medlin walked back in time. When he leaves for Harvard University in August, he’ll remember one last stroll around his elementary school alma mater.
“It’s pretty surreal,” said Medlin, 18, after circling the courtyard at Chain Lake Elementary School. “I don’t think I’ve been back on campus since I left.”
Friday morning’s Senior Walk was a first in the Monroe School District. Tamara Krache, a district spokeswoman, said that along with Chain Lake, graduating seniors visited Frank Wagner, Fryelands, Maltby and Salem Woods schools.
Cheers arose from Chain Lake students as seniors in graduation gowns and honor cords walked from a school bus into the courtyard. “Once a Cheetah, always a Cheetah,” Chain Lake Principal Chris Espeland said, greeting about 35 soon-to-be grads. Monroe’s graduation was Saturday night.
Lining the courtyard Friday were kids holding hand-drawn signs, “You Did It” and “Welcome Back.” As a sound system blasted “We Are Family,” teens strutted their stuff in what Espeland called “the senior Cheetahs’ final walkabout.” All along the crowded walkway, seniors greeted children with high fives.
Medlin leaned down to offer kids his best words of wisdom: “Do your homework.”
That advice couldn’t have come from a better source. Monroe High School Principal John Lombardi said that Medlin, who has been awarded a full-ride scholarship to Harvard, “is obviously very academically focused and very hardworking.”
“Ethan is just a renaissance guy,” Lombardi said. There’s more to Medlin than academic achievement. A valedictorian with a 4.0 grade point average, a National Merit Commended Student and an AP Scholar with Distinction, Medlin has also been tested by tough circumstances — including homelessness.
In his Harvard application essay, Medlin wrote about a time during his sophomore year when his family lived in a tent.
“Things weren’t going well for my family, and we had to leave the house we were renting. We lived in a tent and were moving around, kind of homeless,” Medlin said Friday. “I just wrote in my essay about me in a tent in the rain studying for AP calculus.”
Medlin, who is interested in a career in government and public service, said the hardship he experienced is part of who he is. “I learned a lot from that,” he said. “Maybe I don’t need the nicest things. I’m looking for my purpose.”
Rochelle Clinton, Medlin’s mother, said the family now has a house in Monroe. A single mom, she lives with her son, two daughters and her older daughter’s baby. “Obviously that was a tough period for us,” she said. “Hopefully we can inspire one person to keep plugging through.”
Medlin said his mom nudged him to succeed. “I couldn’t have done it without her,” he said of the mother who got up at 5 a.m. to help him with algebra.
The Monroe Senior Walks were organized by Cierra Mattern, a graduating senior headed to Washington State University.
“Cierra approached me and the activities director with this idea,” Principal Lombardi said. Mattern met with Monroe Superintendent Fredrika Smith and with elementary principals.
Mattern said the Senior Walk idea was sparked by a video out of Texas that was posted on social media. Krache said about 70 percent of Monroe High’s more than 400 graduating seniors went to elementary schools in the district, and visited their former schools.
“It’s a great opportunity for seniors to reconnect with their roots, and to become positive role models for younger kids,” Lombardi said. “They get to see what it’s like at the end, what graduation really looks like, caps and gowns, and how excited people get about that.”
The concept isn’t exclusive to Monroe. Seniors from Stanwood and Marysville high schools also made appearances at their former elementary schools this graduation season.
At Stanwood High School, English teacher Denise Eichler led the effort. There, the new rite of passage is called From Roots to Wings Graduation Walk. Eichler had also seen the Texas video.
“For the younger ones, if this continues as a tradition, they will see it every year,” Eichler said. “The idea of graduating will become a clear expectation, and something fun. It’s a visual reminder of that reward at the journey’s end.”
While Harvard-bound Medlin told young admirers to do their homework, those kids clapped and cheered. Chain Lake fifth-grader Lydia Martin held up a sign with a send-off wish: “Good luck with life.”