Graduation 'bittersweet'

Christian Heritage students finish familiar times together

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— For Christian Heritage School's class of 2006, Sunday's commencement ceremony was an intimate occasion.

Despite the warm atmosphere, graduating senior Lauren Keppler was nervous.

"Why? Because there's only four of us," said Keppler, who made a transition CHS in February from Cherry Creek High School, which boasts the state's largest student body, with 3,700 enrolled.

The small gathering of family and friends in the CHS cafeteria was fitting for the graduating seniors, especially Rebecca Timmerman and Jessica Houston, who have attended CHS together for 13 years.

"These are kids we've watched grow up, I remember I taught them Latin in fifth grade. ...that's what Christian education is all about -- community. All the teachers here have taught these kids, you've got alumni, parents, coaches. It doesn't feel like we're sitting back watching, we're all here taking part in this," CHS School Board President Rich Hall said.

The graduating class benefited from the personalized aspects of the ceremony, which included retrospective slide-show presentations about the four students.

During Houston's salutatorian address, she stressed the importance of looking past the small number of the class and looking at the group's potential. In Timmerman's valedictorian address, she also credited the support of her classmates and the school that she's been attending for "76 percent of [her] life."

CHS alumnus Jeremiah Kiely's commencement speech also reflected kinship, explaining how Timmerman had asked him to speak to keep the ceremony in the CHS family.

"I'm going to miss them. There's something about this place, teaching the students even if they're not hanging out with one another, there's a loyalty there," Kiely said.

There was no better evidence of the faithfulness the school generates than during the presentation of the Jonathan Olinger Award to Jessica Houston's family.

Houston's father, Brian, was the CHS lead secondary teacher and had taught at the school for 15 years before his death in a March motorcycle accident.

"He was the high school -- he set the schedules and defined the classes, people identified the school with him. He lived to see his daughter graduate and hand her a diploma," Hall said.

The CHS crowd showed their gratitude and respect for the Houston family by presenting them with an award that recognizes exemplary Christian behavior. The family received thunderous applause and cheers, along with a standing ovation.

Despite the somber void of the Houston family loss, the ceremony remained celebratory.

"Jessi did a good job setting a light, encouraging tone and kept it positive. She's wise beyond her years," Kiely said.

"I felt so good, it's a big accomplishment, a weight lifted off my shoulders," Houston said.

The rest of the graduating class was ecstatic, reveling in the moment among a supportive network of families and not yet worrying about what lies ahead.

"The battle's over," a relieved Charlie Cogburn said before stepping outside to see his truck, which was thoroughly wrapped in toilet paper, courtesy of the junior class.

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