HAMMOND — When Darrick Woods entered George Rogers Clark Middle/High School, he set the goal to be valedictorian his senior year.
There were moments over his seven years at Clark that he wasn’t sure he would be giving a speech on graduation night, but on Wednesday night his dream became a reality as his mom, grandma and two sisters watched him graduate at the top of his class.
Woods is the first black valedictorian at Clark. He'll also be the last, as the school is closing after this year.
"I just hope that it can inspire other people in my community to reach for greatness and believe in themselves no matter what the obstacles or circumstances are," he said.
His advice for others: never stop believing in yourself. He said there may be people or circumstances that cause you to question the path you are on, but it’s important to stick to what you know is right for you.
And the obstacles, he said, are where you learn the lessons.
As early as sixth grade, Woods knew that if he put in the hard work, he could achieve his goal, but he also drew inspiration from his mother, who he said raised him by herself.
"She’s always motivated me to be the best I can be," he said.
Lawrence Chase, administrator at Clark, has been a mentor to Woods throughout his time there. Woods said Chase was also like a father figure to him; supporting him and often giving advice — even if Woods didn’t always want it at the time.
For Chase, graduation is bittersweet because he will miss the close-knit, day-to-day interaction with Woods, but he is proud to see him achieve such a high goal "that required some rigor and perseverance."
"It’s been a pleasure getting to know and grow with him for the past seven years of his academic journey and just seeing the individual that he’s become inside and outside," Chase said.
At The Pavilion at Wolf Lake Wednesday night, around 180 graduates from the class of 2021 walked, strutted and danced their way across the stage to the sound of cheers, applause and joyous laughter as they received the last diplomas to ever be given by Clark at its 86th and final commencement.
As salutatorian Maria Santacruz said in her speech, "this is Clark’s last dance."
To send off the final class, Jill Lees, from the Clark class of 1991, gave the new graduates 11 pieces of advice. She told them to find mentors, take care of their health, never forget where they came from and figure it out.
Lees reminded them that success is relative. For her, success looks like a 27-year career in law enforcement. Whereas for fellow Clark alumnus Bob Chapek, success looks like being CEO of The Walt Disney Co.
Each member of the class of 2021 will have the opportunity to leave and define their own legacy, she said.
Woods said his experience at Clark was great. He was involved with a plethora of clubs, sports and extracurriculars. He didn’t like leaving school, he said, so he got involved in anything that would keep him there longer.
He describes himself as more social than most, so he got his hand in everything from being president of National Honor Society to being on the cross country, swimming, basketball and baseball teams.
While Woods has reason to celebrate his accomplishments, graduation was a sad day, he said. Clark has been his home for the past seven years and a lot of his family graduated from there, too, so seeing it close is sad.
But Woods said he likes to look on the bright side of things, so he hopes Hammond Central will offer new opportunities for students.
Being valedictorian isn’t the only reason for Woods to celebrate. When it came to college, he set a goal to be accepted to and have the choice between multiple "higher-level" schools without adding financial strain on his family.
Ultimately, Woods chose Northwestern University, where he will study neuroscience as a pre-medical student. He received a full-ride scholarship.
It was one of the schools he had his heart set on. The pre-medical program and facilities are "next level," he said. And he gets to stay close to home and enjoy Northwestern’s "beautiful" location.
Superintendent Scott Miller encouraged Wednesday's graduates to distinguish between their goals and their purpose.
They might set goals to graduate college or buy a house one day, but they should find purpose in living for others. Living in a way that helps others will bring joy and support in the hard times.
Fireworks were set off after Principal David Verta gave his final words to the class to round out the celebratory evening.
"Class of 2021," he said, "we really did save the best for last."
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