‘End where we be­gan’: Par­adise teens grad­u­ate

The Charlotte Observer (Sunday) - - Obituaries / News - BY ADAM BEAM As­so­ci­ated Press

Par­adise th­ese days is sur­rounded by piles of crum­pled garage doors and melted ovens. The roads teem with dump trucks, and most street cor­ners are clogged with signs ad­ver­tis­ing de­bris re­moval ser­vices or pleas to iden­tify un­claimed pets.

But Thurs­day night – six months af­ter a wild­fire de­stroyed most of the Cal­i­for­nia town and killed 85 peo­ple – the lights came on again at Par­adise High School’s foot­ball sta­dium. A class of 220 se­niors look­ing to build a new fu­ture re­ceived their di­plo­mas amid the rub­ble of their past lives. Of the 980 stu­dents at the school, about 900 lost their homes, Prin­ci­pal Loren Lighthall said.

“We’re able to end where we be­gan,” said 18-year-old Lilly Rickards, who lost her house in the fire and has been shar­ing a bed with her 26-year-old sis­ter in a small apart­ment about 15 miles away in Chico.

Par­adise High School sits across the road from a ceme­tery, next to a church. The church and nearly ev­ery other build­ing around it are gone. The school’s park­ing lot, where se­niors have dec­o­rated park­ing spa­ces with bright col­ors, sits empty be­hind a chain­link fence. But the build­ings, and the foot­ball field where grad­u­a­tions have been held since at least the 1960s, are still in­tact. For stu­dents from a multi­gen­er­a­tional town with deep roots, the school be­came an an­chor af­ter the fire.

“The fire could burn just about ev­ery phys­i­cal ob­ject un­der the sun, but it couldn’t touch the con­nec­tions we have built over that life­time,” se­nior class pres­i­dent Gar­rett Malcolm told the crowd. “We will al­ways carry the name and spirit of Par­adise with us. Not be­cause of its death, but be­cause of its life and what it stood for.”

At Thurs­day night’s cer­e­mony, the field was cov­ered with stu­dents in green and white gowns – green for the boys and white for the girls. Stu­dents en­tered the field in pairs, meet­ing at the stage for pho­tos.

Some added mini per­for­mances, in­clud­ing con­fetti can­nons, kiss­ing cou­ples and two boys who car­ried pizza boxes and shared slices, arms en­tan­gled to feed each other. For many, the cer­e­mony is not just a good­bye to high school, but to their town. Most of its 26,000 res­i­dents have left, set­tling through­out the re­gion. Steve “Woody” Cul­leton, a for­mer mayor, es­ti­mates be­tween 800 and 2,000 peo­ple now live in Par­adise.

Ben Dees and his twin sis­ter, Katie, are mov­ing to St. Ge­orge, Utah, this sum­mer. They could have al­ready been there. But their mother, Julie Fair­banks, agreed to stay in the area through July so they could grad­u­ate and spend time with their friends.

“I’m just wait­ing it out, sleep­ing on a twin-sized mat­tress on the floor – but at least it’s a bed – so that they can stay with their friends and be here as long as they can,” Fair­banks said.

“I’m just so proud,” she said. “They are my only kids. … Ev­ery­thing is the ‘first’ and the ‘last’ for them. And then go­ing through all this, I’m just so proud that they got through it.”

The Novem­ber fire de­stroyed more than 13,000 homes and killed 85 peo­ple. Since then, the high school has held classes at an of­fice build­ing near the Chico air­port that was once used by Face­book. The school has the sec­ond­high­est math scores in the county. There are seven vale­dic­to­ri­ans, de­fined as stu­dents who took at least eight col­lege-level classes and earned A’s in all of them. And school of­fi­cials say they have the only Na­tional Merit Scholar in North­ern Cal­i­for­nia this year.

“We didn’t just crawl across the fin­ish line bloody and bro­ken. We ex­ploded through it and ex­ceeded all ex­pec­ta­tions,” se­nior Nathan Dai­ley said.

RICH PEDRONCELL­I AP

Se­niors cel­e­brate at the end of their grad­u­a­tion cer­e­monies at Par­adise High School in Par­adise, Calif., Thurs­day. Most of the stu­dents of Par­adise High lost their homes when the Camp Fire swept through the area.

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from USA

© PressReader. All rights reserved.