When I found out my friend died, I was holding a cheeseburger, fries and a plastic ramekin of mayonnaise. I was a college freshman, walking through a big white tent on my way back to the dorm. A grounds crew had assembled the tent for a charity fashion show, during which attractive people would raise money for kids with cleft palates. For now, the tent was empty and silent. It was raining, just like in the movies. My mom called my cell phone, and I sat on the edge of a wooden plank.
She said two words: “Henh’s dead.”
The William Fleming High School International Baccalaureate Class of 2006 was a tight-knit group. Separated from the other students since 6th grade, we had the same schedule and the same teachers for seven years.
We ate lunch together in a classroom with our history teacher, a short, sharp-tongued veteran whose lectures felt like military briefings. Over lunch, we had historical debates and watched “Chappelle’s Show” on a TV that was rolled in and out of the classrooms. Except for the divisive choice between Spanish or French in 7th grade, we spent all our school hours together.
As graduation approached, the IB students began to think about what school would look like without each other. We also began to pay closer attention to our rank. The valedictorian and the salutatorian would both speak at graduation: I was #1 and Henh was #2.
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I loved the stage. A drama nerd with starring roles as Reverend Shaw (“Footloose”) and Don Quixote (“Man of La Mancha”) under his belt, I wasn’t scared of the graduation-day crowd. Henh, though, was nervous about his speech. Shy at first, but with a sharp sense of humor (he made sure I was aware of my post-pubescent, fluctuating weight), Henh excelled in small groups, not large auditoriums. To boot, English wasn’t his first language. His family immigrated to the US when he was a baby.
With a graduation rate that teeters around 50%, Fleming commencement ceremonies are true celebrations. Mothers cheer, aunts and uncles scream and all are discouraged from bringing airhorns or noisemaking devices into the Roanoke Civic Center. After some stock advice from an overpaid inspirational speaker, harmonies from the school choir and rehearsed remarks from the new principal, Henh was invited to the stage to give his speech.
Audiences can tell when someone is nervous. They either turn on the speaker or rally behind him. Henh, through his charm, wit and sincerity, scored the latter.
He told his story: immigrating to the US, working hard in school and at a part-time job at Sears, studying to become a US citizen — a badge he couldn’t have been more proud of. He ended with a Ralph Waldo Emerson quote, from a poem we had read together in English class:
“To finish the moment, to find the journey’s end in every step of the road, to live the greatest number of good hours, is wisdom.”
The audience stood and applauded.