UVALDE, Texas — Nearly 300 Uvalde High School seniors received their diplomas one month to the day after a former student shot his grandmother in the face before driving to Robb Elementary School and gunning down 19 students and two teachers.
Friday’s ceremony, rescheduled from its original May 27 date, marked a bittersweet milestone for a Texas community reeling from the tragedy that unfolded four weeks ago.
The heartache was palpable as the community gathered to celebrate the lives and accomplishments of graduating high school seniors.
Grief clouded an otherwise joyous occasion that was punctuated by memories of children who will never have the opportunity to receive their diplomas or attend college. Twenty-one placards faced the crowd as the Class of 2022 stepped into adulthood.
“Love the people in your life while you have them because you don’t know what the future holds for anyone,” said valedictorian Abigail Kone.
“Our community has definitely learned about the unexpected. Something that should have never happened happened. Our lives have been altered. But we still stand together as a community,” she said.
Kone read the names of the victims and called the slain children honorary members of her graduating class.
The gunman would have been among those graduating Friday, but he had previously dropped out.
His name was not mentioned, though the deadly rampage continues to haunt the small community.
“If I had to pick a theme for today, it’s healing,” said Uvalde High School principal Randall Harris. “Healing is what we all need. It’s what you need. It’s what I need.”
The decision to hold graduation a month after the mass shooting was met with mixed emotions.
Earlier in the day, Eulalio “Lalo” Diaz, Uvalde County justice of the peace, beamed as he talked about his daughter’s graduation and plans to attend New York University.
Yet his face darkened as he remembered May 24.
“I think it’s important to show that life is going to go on,” he said. “But it’s going to follow this class.”
It continues to follow Diaz, who was on duty the day of the rampage and tasked with identifying the victims and notifying their families. He remembers the cacophony of phones ringing inside the two classrooms where the unthinkable unfolded. They were tucked inside pockets and backpacks, ringing with frantic loved ones on the other end hoping to find their children and spouses safe.
“I’ve worked my way through it,” he said. “I’m not having as many nightmares. I’m ready for my daughter to move on.”
But not all Uvalde residents could face a celebration.
Javier Cazares, whose daughter, Jaclyn, was killed at the school, decided to skip his nephew's graduation ceremony. This week, he drove his older daughter, Jazmin, to Austin to testify before state lawmakers, where she tearfully pleaded for tougher gun laws.
The Cazares family has joined a growing chorus of residents who want more accountability from the law enforcement officers and city officials under fire because of the response to the shooting.
The grief-stricken family is still struggling. Cazares remains unable to work and frequently finds himself sitting in his daughter’s room.
“It’s kind of crazy graduation falls on the 24th,” he said, adding that he was “ticked off” by the decision to hold the ceremony so soon after the shooting. “Why on this day? Everything is still so fresh.”