In many ways, they were like graduating seniors everywhere. The proud class of 2016, smiling, joking, posing for selfies — accomplished students bound for Boston University, Northeastern, Wentworth, and beyond.
One will play basketball at Keene State in New Hampshire. One will study at Bryn Mawr in Pennsylvania. More than a few will discover that life is full of second chances. Disappointments and dead-ends. And then, suddenly, a path opens and horizons brighten.
But in unforgettable ways, these 121 graduating seniors at Jeremiah E. Burke High School stand apart from their 18-year-old counterparts, young adults who wore caps and gowns and walked across stages in Cohasset or Hopkinton or Beverly.
Blood had been washed from the pavement in Dorchester, but the echoes of gunshots were still a raw memory on Friday afternoon — something to process before an evening of confetti and balloons, before pomp and circumstance.
“It shocked me that someone would take someone else’s life,’’ said Flavia Freitas, the class valedictorian. “I know it happens all the time but it scared me. It made me sad. During a time I should have been excited, it made me feel down.’’
The brazen daylight shooting death of Raekwon Brown, a 17-year-old junior gunned down outside the school after a fire alarm sounded there on Wednesday, was on the minds and the lips of those who walked through the limestone entrance of the Art Deco building perhaps for the last time.
“It was very devastating,’’ said Kylie Alexander, who is on her way to Wentworth in the fall to study architecture and sat beside Raekwon Brown in history class. “I was crying. We’re all very upset. And we’re all going to miss him.’’
When I sat in the office of Burke headmaster Lindsa McIntyre on Friday, strong cross-currents of emotion — tragedy and triumph, mourning and celebration — played out on her face.
She has guided the Burke through an era of educational rebirth. It was named the most improved school in the city last year. It’s the first school in the state to emerge from a state designation of “underperforming.’’
So when she speaks of resiliency and renewal, she speaks from hard-earned experience.
“We are lighting a candle to celebrate life and not to curse the darkness,’’ she told me, her eyes brimming with tears. “I worry less about the perception of others and more about the opportunity of the students in our school.’’
She smiled when she counted Raekwon Brown as among her students determined to make the grade. “This young man was making bets that he going to get an A in science,’’ she said. “He was going to be a leader. He was the kind of kid who knew how to love. He had the same friends since the day he walked in here. They were like brothers.’’
Through tears, she sees hope. It happened when one of her students asked to address a faculty meeting this week. He had a fund-raising idea to help the Brown family. And it happened when a girl approached her to explain the sobs that wet her cheeks.
“I’m not grieving just for Raekwon,’’ the girl told her. “I’m grieving because people might misunderstand who we are as a school.’’
McIntyre nodded at that, and, pausing to collect herself, said she won’t abide any such misunderstanding. “We lost a loved one,’’ she said, “but we’ve not lost sight of the light.’’
That light was arrayed in full candlepower in the school auditorium on Friday evening.
It was there inside Damonte Turner, who struggled academically as a sophomore but, with the help of his basketball coach and engagement counselor Sean Ryan, he pulled up his grades. He’ll play basketball at Keene State on a scholarship.
“I’m leaving the people who supported me,’’ Turner said. “The main person was my coach. He pushed me. He helped me on the court and off. He changed me in so many ways. I feel like I’ve matured.’’
When I asked Flavia Freitas, born in Cape Verde, for an early peek at the graduation speech she’s been polishing since April, she agreed. Here’s one piece of her valedictory:
“I went from having little to no opportunities to being in a diverse, yet inclusive environment such as this school where I could see a future for myself. Not a future where I know completely what awaits me, but one that I have the courage to face — even though it scares me just to think about.’’
As he addressed the graduates, Mayor Martin J. Walsh recognized what illuminates the Burke class of ’16.
“Darkness cannot drive out darkness: only light can do that,’’ the mayor said. “Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.”
He was quoting Martin Luther King Jr., who went to graduate school at Boston University, and who once preached at the Twelfth Baptist Church just up the road on Warren Street. That was years before the civil rights champion was shot and killed in Memphis.