Free State High School graduates challenged to find ‘clarity in moments of darkness’

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As the sun set behind the Free State High School press box on Wednesday night, the light created a backdrop nearly as beautiful as graduate speaker Solie Edison’s speech to his 402 fellow graduates. 

“For the past four years, I have been writing,” Edison said. “Lines and stanzas on napkins with coffee trays, the back of sheet music, calculus homework that I didn’t understand, trying to capture high school.” 

The next six minutes featured prose and passion from Edison, who encapsulated the highs and lows of high school within his speech, entitled “The Road Home.”

“Somehow, from tracing dotted cursive letters to signing the forms to head off to college, promising that the little you and your heart will only continue to breathe into the wind,” Edison said. “And I think you can see it now after all of the art projects, glue sticks and safety scissors, cutting and pasting memories of each year into a collage of smiles, laughs and complexity.”

Edison, one of two Free State graduates selected to speak to their classmates, will leave Free State after participating in track and field, Student Equity Council, choir and theatre. 

“We are beautiful, unique but humbled alike. Remember to hold to each moment no matter how fleeting,” Edison said. 

Carter Gaskins/Lawrence Times Solie Edison

Free State’s senior choir members began the night by singing the national anthem, accompanied by a flyover, and leading the seniors in the school’s alma mater.

Superintendent Anthony Lewis congratulated the Free State Class of 2023 for reaching the finish line, but encouraged them to remember those who made it possible for them. He listed off a flurry of achievements among the class, including military appointments, governor’s scholars, state and national champions, perfect test scores and more.

“As you leave Free State High School behind, do so with pride and confidence,” Lewis said. “Smile often. Laugh hard and help others along the way. Go out into this world and make your mark and show everyone what a Firebird is made of.”

Wendo Kimori, the second graduate speaker of the night, framed the past four years of high school through the lens of the Kansas state motto.

Carter Gaskins/Lawrence Times Wendo Kimori

“I remember my first day of school,” Kimori started. “I mean, we ate sunflower seeds, pet a teacher’s box turtle and salamander and we even learned how to sing ‘Home on the Range’ … Amid this day’s festivities, my 5-year-old self learned a phrase, which I didn’t realize then, but would stick with me forever: ‘Ad Astra per Aspera.’”

The phrase, which translates to “to the stars through difficulties,” encapsulates the four-year experience of the class of 2023, Kimori said. The group of graduates had to persevere through a pandemic that severely altered their high school years.

“Just as the stars are far away and difficult to reach, with perseverance and determination, we can rise above the challenges and accomplish great things,” Kimori said.

School board President Shannon Kimball addressed the graduates by congratulating them on their tenacity through obstacles. She did so not just as a school board member but also as the parent of a graduate. 

“The years that stretched out endlessly before us as I dropped my son off for his first day of kindergarten are gone in what now feels like an instant,” Kimball said. 

Carter Gaskins/Lawrence Times Shannon Kimball

Students who received scholastic honors, placing them in the top 10% of all Free State students academically, were recognized alongside members of the National Honor Society. 

Finally, 36 valedictorians were recognized for receiving a perfect grade point average throughout high school. 

Free State teachers Jeffrey Haas, Blake Swenson, Brian Law and Brittany Cummings received Educator of the Year awards and read the names of those graduating.

Carter Gaskins/Lawrence Times Brittany Cummings, Jeffrey Haas, Brian Law and Blake Swenson

As the Free State Class of 2023 now disperses across the country, they will all take new and different roads.

During his speech, Edison wished for his classmates to find a road that allows them to shine for all to see.

“The road home is not obvious,” Edison said. “It’s finding clarity in moments of darkness, enjoying the rarity of pure bliss and sunshine. And I hope that this road, the one that we have been taking for far longer than we know, will be a softly lit path so that we may not stumble, but that we may shine brightness all on our own.”

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Cuyler Dunn (he/him), a contributor to The Lawrence Times, is a student at the University of Kansas School of Journalism. He is a graduate of Lawrence High School where he was the editor-in-chief of the school’s newspaper, The Budget, and was named the 2022 Kansas High School Journalist of the Year. Read more of his work for the Times here.

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