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Gainesville High nears end of 'rough' year
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Gainesville High School seniors Leticia Cortes, 18, left, and Blanca Bautista, 18, flip through a yearbook Wednesday after graduation practice. - photo by SARA GUEVARA | The Times

AREA GRADUATIONS*


Johnson High School
When: 3 p.m. Friday
Where: Free Chapel, 3001 McEver Road, Gainesville

North Hall High School
When: 7 p.m. Friday
Where: Free Chapel, 3001 McEver Road, Gainesville

East Hall High School
When: 11 a.m. Saturday
Where: Free Chapel, 3001 McEver Road, Gainesville

Lakeview Academy
When: 5 p.m. Saturday
Where: First United Methodist Church, Gainesville

Chestatee High School
When: 3 p.m. Saturday
Where: Free Chapel, 3001 McEver Road, Gainesville

West Hall High School
When: 7 p.m. Saturday
Where: Free Chapel, 3001 McEver Road, Gainesville

Flowery Branch High School
When: 3 p.m. Monday
Where: Free Chapel, 3001 McEver Road, Gainesville

Lumpkin County High School
When: 7 p.m. May 25
Where: High school stadium, 2001 Indian Drive, Dahlonega

White County High School
When: 8 p.m. May 25
Where: High school stadium, 2600 U.S. 129 N, Cleveland

Habersham Central High School
When: 8 p.m. June 1
Where: High school stadium, 171 Raider Circle, Mount Airy

Gainesville High School
When: 8 p.m. Friday
Where: High school gymnasium, 830 Century Place, Gainesville

*Riverside Military Academy held graduation Saturday.

It’s a Big Red family.

From freshmen to seniors, teachers to principals, everyone has a place in the halls of Gainesville High School.
When times are good, you can find a pat on the back anywhere.

When times are bad, you can find someone to lean on.

This past school year for the Big Red family has seen plenty of both.

It has seen the ups: state championships, academically successful students and growth.

But it has also has seen plenty of downs: the passing of senior Patrick Kelley, a convoluted valedictorian controversy and the loss of a leader in Chris Mance.

Any of those events, individually, could cripple a school or, at the very least, provide an excuse for failure.

“This is my 18th year in education and I’ve never seen a school year like this one,” said Daryl White, Gainesville High assistant principal, who was diagnosed with stage four cancer last May. The Big Red family, however, wouldn’t cripple, nor would it make excuses.

“At the same time, I’ve never seen a school system so compassionate and caring about its members and not just faculty,”  added White. “And it’s genuine.”

He has been cancer-free for months now and knows that compassion firsthand. But the rest of the school’s makeup still needed a lot of caring for.

Last December, Kelley, a senior who had just turned 18 years old, was killed in a car wreck on Clarks Bridge Road.

Not two months later, Gainesville High was back in the news when a valedictorian controversy sparked from the school saying the award would be shared. Two students, Cody Stephens and Charlie Bryant, were to share the award before Stephens’ mother, Valerie, said the award should be solely his because he held the highest grades in the class.

Bryant eventually stepped down, but after numerous school board meetings, rallies and headlines.

The final blow came just weeks ago when principal Mance lost his battle with esophageal cancer. Mance was the leader of Gainesville High since 2008 and was well-respected and loved by both the faculty and student body.

“I think you can take any one situation that happened and it’s potentially devastating to the student body, to a senior class, to a school system,” said Larry Miller, Gainesville High’s band director. “You put two or three of those back-to-back and, really, everyone was tested.”

Yet, students are preparing for the summer, seniors are counting the days until graduation, and the school continues to operate with a sense of normalcy.

“This place, no matter what happens, it demands the best from you and it won’t let you use anything as an excuse,” said Bryson Worley, assistant principal. “It’s never an option not to keep going.”

Pushing through on the Gainesville campus has not been easy, but those who knew Mance and Kelley and know the tradition inherent with wearing the red and white realize what it takes to honor their fallen Red Elephants.

“It’s definitely been a rough year,” said Stephen Mason, a senior. “Having Patrick pass away, who a lot of us were close with, and then having Mr. Mance pass away was very hard because of the way they affected the student body and helped everybody out.”

But, he says, the class knew what had to be done.

“We just came together as a class and told each other we were going to stick together and make the best out of our senior year as we could,” said Mason.

“We know that those two would want us to keep going.”

His peers agree.

“It has been really hard and kind of rough, but I feel like they’re watching down on us and we’re doing this for them,”  said David Gonzalez, a senior. “It’s been hard but it’s brought everybody together a lot more.”

And those who know Gainesville High know it’s a special place and knew through each obstacle, the school would remain a symbol of strength and family.

“It truly is just different than other places,” said Miller. “I don’t know what individual element does it, but it absolutely is different. I think we feel each other’s pain deeper, but we’re able to celebrate the successes more.”

Part of the difference, some say, could be the emphasis put on establishing personal relationships between faculty, staff and students.

“I’ve never seen a place where teachers go out of their way to develop relationships with their students until I came to Gainesville,” said Worley. “I think everyone wants to do their part and give back, as cliché as it may sound, to make this place a little bit better than it was.”

Mance and Kelley, friends and co-workers say, knew that and practiced it every day because to them it was more than obligation — it was Gainesville tradition.

“One of the biggest factors in our success is tradition,” said Worley. “It all goes back to the relationships.”

As the school and those it houses for 180 days look toward the future, the 2011-12 school year won’t be forgotten.  And those who lived it say that’s OK.

“This was an unusual year,” said Merrianne Dyer, superintendent. “We’ve had a lot of distractions and a lot of challenges.  I think all of us are mourning and grieving in our own way, but we haven’t let that grief shut us down.”

That’s the tradition at Gainesville: to persevere.

“This school has been here since 1892,” said White. “There is tremendous tradition. People come and go, administrators come and go, teachers come and go, student bodies come and go, but Gainesville High School Red Elephants, it stays. It lives on through the tradition.”

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