One person was visibly absent from Fred Moore High School’s commencement ceremony Wednesday afternoon at the University of North Texas Gateway Center.

Principal Marilyn Rabsatt, 49, died during the school year after a 10-year struggle with cancer. It was clear throughout the ceremony she was far from forgotten.

Despite many of the trappings of a normal graduation, Wednesday’s event had undercurrents of something different.

“To most, Fred Moore is just a high school,” said graduating senior Desiree Williams. “To some, Fred Moore is ‘the bad kid school,’ but to us, Fred Moore was the place of second chances.”

Students hoping to graduate early, recover lost credits or graduate in a more flexible, compassionate environment are drawn to the school. A litany of obstacles kept many of the graduates from a traditional high school, but the atmosphere at Fred Moore High School is designed with nontraditional students in mind.

Midway through the event, graduating senior Gregory Gatzke took the stage to give his class speech.

“Some of us have graduated early, some of us have graduated by the skin of our teeth,” he said. “I know I have.”

Before long, his tone shifted in order to remember the death of a beloved educator.

As is tradition during Fred Moore graduations, Gatzke was “passed the torch” by Rabsatt during a previous commencement, becoming the last student to receive the honor from her, which made it all the more impactful upon him.

“But today, we shouldn’t be just commemorating Mrs. Rabsatt; Mrs. [Jacqueline] San Miguel took the role of leadership for our class of 2019,” he said.

He acknowledged it took some adjustment, and sometimes it was difficult to stay focused and let somebody else step into Rabsatt’s shoes: “But Mrs. San Miguel did it, even though they were four sizes too big.”

As a parting act of admiration, Gatzke reached into his robe, removed the torch — a flickering electric candle — and passed it to the new principal of Fred Moore High School.

He left the stage just before another round of presentations and speeches began.

Before too long, soon-to-be graduates Keely Graves and Williams made their way to the microphone.

“I was told that this speech was supposed to be around two minutes long, so let’s hope to God I can do that,” Graves said to ripples of laughter. “I was also told that I should be selfless in regard to sharing my story with the world.”

While she did touch upon obstacles that came between her and a graduation gown, notably her four attempts at suicide, she directed the focus to her fellow graduates.

“Each and every person in this auditorium has a story,” she said. “We, as humans, have gone through hard difficulties and chose not to speak about it most of the time.”

She expressed faith that all those assembled before her would go further still, and she asked that each of them walk out of the auditorium with the same strength that had gotten them that far.

Williams struck a different tone. She recalled the high school commencement in December when she watched her classmates walk across the stage without her.

“As I sat in that chair, my heart was full of inspiration coming in the form of tears,” she said.

With the help of a support system in and outside of the school day, she was able to overcome the diagnoses of bipolar disorder, severe anxiety, morphed eating — an eating disorder — and depression when she was 13.

“Fred Moore was a place of second chances,” she said. “A place where my disorders did not conquer me, but I conquered them with a diploma in my hand.”

Before the 23 graduates, with their newly acquired diplomas, left the building to waves of applause, Williams performed the ceremonial passing of the torch to the Fred Moore class of 2020. With the candle went the acquired symbolism tying each successive class together.

MARSHALL REID can be reached at 940-566-6862 and via Twitter at @MarshallKReid.

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