CAMBRIDGE — From the hospital, wearing a cap and gown and speaking via a video conference call, shooting victim Thanialee Cotto-Felix brought the crowd to its feet Thursday night when she greeted her fellow seniors at the Cambridge Rindge and Latin School graduation.
“You guys, we finally made it,” said Cotto-Felix, still recovering from a gunshot wound to her abdomen that she suffered Sunday night.
The same drive-by shooting on Willow Street killed another student at the school, Charlene Holmes, who was 16 and two years away from a graduation of her own.
Middlesex District Attorney Gerard Leone’s office is still investigating the shooting, and no arrests have been made.
Determined not to let the tragedy completely dampen the joy and celebration that usually surrounds high school commencements, school administrators worked with Cotto-Felix’s family this week to enable her to see, hear, and participate in the commencement on Thursday night in the War Memorial gymnasium at the city’s high school.
From a small screen set up on the same stage where more than 350 seniors received their diplomas, Cotto-Felix thanked the class of 2012 for their support as she recovers from the shooting. Her brother, sophomore Mark Gonzales, accepted her diploma on her behalf.
“We finally got together as a class,” Cotto-Felix said, as her classmates, teachers, and parents throughout the gymnasium gave a standing ovation.
It was a high moment in a ceremony marked with words of sadness. Holmes’ older brother, Kenyatta Terrence Holmes, also graduated, and as he walked across the stage to hug school officials and get his diploma, much of the audience rose to their feet to applaud him, as well.
“Boy, what a courageous young man,” Superintendent of Schools Jeffrey Young said a few hours before the ceremony.
Leone’s office has said Holmes and Cotto-Felix were together and walked up to the house at 34-36 Willow St. to have a conversation with someone on the porch when they were shot.
Hundreds of people attended an emotional vigil for Holmes on Willow Street earlier this week, and family members pleaded for anyone with information about the shooting to come forward.
At the graduation, Young told the seniors that it is a week marked by joy and sadness, pleasure and pain, life and death. But he told them it is OK for them to celebrate.
“You are allowed to swim in the excitement of the moment and your accomplishments,” Young said. “You have earned that right.’’
Senior class president Kevin Lovaincy said the school is dealing with the tragic loss of Charlene Holmes, and he told Kenyatta Holmes he is surrounded by people who support him.
“You will never be alone,” Lovaincy said. “You have 400 brothers and sisters.”
Class valedictorian Conor Reynolds Paterson said the shooting has cast the school “in a shadow of tragedy, but students should find elements of home as they graduate from the school and embark on a chance to make new friends.”
While the students paid their respects to the victims of the shooting Sunday, there was still plenty of smiles, dancing, and cheers as each graduating senior’s name was called.
After the seniors threw their caps in the air to celebrate their graduation and spilled from the War Memorial gym on Thursday night, senior Jalen Bernard said it was both a sad and happy occasion, and he hopes Cotto-Felix recovers quickly.
“It was very touching,” Bernard said. “It was good to see her.”
Young said it was important for the school to give honor and respect to the victims of the shooting and their families.
At the same time he said the school district still wanted to recognize and celebrate the accomplishments of the graduating seniors.
“This is not the graduation that a week ago they would have imagined — the truly joyful event you want graduation to be — and that is kind of what life is sometimes,” Young said.