Jason Wright: Graduation redo a moment of closure

Zach Stewart receives his high school diploma from Central High School Principal Melissa Hensley during a graduation redo on Aug. 12 W.O. Riley Park in Woodstock. Courtesy photo by Kodi Wright

Most high school seniors are ecstatic about graduation and it’s a highlight of their youth. In fact, some love the experience so much, wearing the cap and gown once just isn’t enough.

On Aug. 12 at W.O. Riley Park in Woodstock, a dozen graduates of Central High School and their families gathered for a rare graduation redo. It was the memorable closing scene of a story that began on a dark road in Fort Valley on June 7.

That evening, senior Zach Stewart and good friends gathered for a celebratory bonfire. Contrary to conventional wisdom about teen parties, theirs was well-supervised and drugs and alcohol were not on the guest list.

(Disclosure: My daughter, Jadi, attended and has known Zach and this group of friends for many years. We both vouch for these extraordinary young adults as honest, high-quality friends.)

After most of the guests left, Zach and two pals decided to do something they’d discussed, but never tried. For nearly two hours, they talked themselves into “skitching” – the practice of riding a skateboard while holding or hitching onto a vehicle. If you’ve seen the 1985 film “Back to the Future”, you’ve seen Michael J. Fox skitch during several scenes.

Zach Stewart and some of his classmates celebrate with him after he received his diploma. Courtesy photo by Kodi Wright

They planned who would drive the vehicle of choice – a Jeep – who would go first, and precisely where and how he’d hold on. When they felt prepared, they ventured onto Fort Valley Road and Zach took his place standing on a skateboard and holding with both arms onto the driver’s side of the Jeep near the window.

On their second attempt, Zach asked the driver to speed up. The skateboard soon began to wobble and in a blink, Zach fell forward onto his head and then backward. Amid the blood and confusion, and in large part because of their lifeguard training, Zach’s friends were able to stabilize him during the wait for emergency personnel.

During a recent interview in the Stewart family home in Edinburg, Zach’s mother, BB, made a deliberate point to express gratitude to Fort Valley Fire and Rescue and the Shenandoah County Sheriff’s Office. “There are too many to thank individually. But they saved his life.”

With traumatic head injuries, Zach was flown to the University of Virginia Medical Center. As his family rushed to his side, Zach was placed into a medically induced coma. When his mother finally spoke by phone to a doctor, she explained the traumatic brain injury and described the situation as “grave.”

Over the next 12 hours, family and friends listened to doctors and wondered whether Zach would live. Gradually his condition improved and within 24 hours he responded to verbal commands and squeezed the doctor’s hands. Within 72 hours, his condition was upgraded.

Meanwhile, his classmates graduated without him. In a tearful moment no one will forget, his sisters accepted his diploma on his behalf. Then, miraculously, just 10 days later, he was released and returned home.

Zach’s recovery has exceeded doctors’ expectations. Despite a small stroke, he’s expected to make a full recovery.

During our discussion, I asked Zach what first went through his mind when we woke and learned why he’d been hospitalized. “I thought I was dead,” he said. “I mean I should have died. I remember thinking I shouldn’t be O.K. after an accident like that.” Zach found more than 900 missed text messages and admitted to feeling tremendous guilt for a reckless choice that forced so many loved ones to shed tears on his behalf.

His cohorts that night felt worse than anyone. “It wasn’t their fault. I chose to do it. I mean we all could have said ‘no,’ or ‘let’s wear a helmet.’ I’m just grateful they were by my side the whole way.”

Zach asked to share two important lessons. “Don’t be reckless,” he said. “We really should respect life.” After a breath he smiled. “And wear a helmet,” he added.

Secondly, Zach has discovered just how much he loves his community. “I used to think this is such a small town with nothing to do. Everybody knows everybody. But ever since that night, I keep thinking about the overwhelming support from my friends, their parents, teachers from every grade, principals … I never thought I’d raise my own family here, but I feel very differently today.”

Two months after nearly dying on a dark road, Zach finally donned his cap and gown and heard his name called at W.O. Riley Park. Not every classmate could come, but the program was largely the same.

Zach’s mother called the ceremony a moment of closure. “The unwavering support we have received from our family, friends, the teachers in the school and this amazing community helped us through a difficult time. Friends and their parents worked very hard to plan the graduation and we could not be more grateful for their efforts.”

Zach agreed. “Graduation was one of the most amazing experiences I’ve had. I can’t express how much the people that came and the event itself mean to me. It didn’t take long for me to get emotional because the kindness and support. I’ve always know I’m friends with some of the greatest people in the world and graduation was a perfect example of how wonderful they are.”

Yes, indeed, when it comes to small towns and true friendship, wearing the cap and gown once just isn’t enough.

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