Oxford High seniors celebrate bittersweet graduation: 'We have held each other up'
Clarkston — In the months after the Oxford High shooting, supporters often returned to an inspirational mantra: "Oxford strong."
They touted the resiliency of the students, staff and families proudly called members of the Oxford Wildcat family.
In addressing the graduating class of 2022 on Thursday night, senior speaker Kylie Ossege, who spent more than a month hospitalized after being wounded in the Nov. 30 mass shooting at the high school, urged her classmates and the community to consider those trying times as underscoring their identity.
"When I think of an Oxford Wildcat, I think of being strong. Being strong means that one is able to withstand great force or pressure," the teen said during the commencement ceremony. "In the past few months, we have all endured a vast amount of pressure. But we have held each other up and supported one another. 'Oxford Strong' means to push through, overcome and stand tall."
The sorrow and resiliency of Oxford High's departing 414 seniors were constant themes at their graduation Thursday held at the Pine Knob Music Theatre in Clarkston.
The nearly three-hour event had all the markings of a commencement, with graduates in dark robes surrounding a flower-fronted stage, cheering scholastic accomplishments and earning their diplomas between musical selections. But the shooting was repeatedly referenced in remarks from administrators and students.
"Our hearts ache and our souls weep at the loss of their lives on Nov. 30," Ken Weaver, superintendent of Oxford Community Schools, told the crowd.
That was symbolized by the seats left empty for two 17-year-old seniors among those slain in the attack: Madisyn Baldwin and Justin Shilling.
Their families were presented the teens' robes and school honors in large frames.
They also learned Shilling had earned enough votes to earn the Oxford Cup, which Principal Steven Wolf described as the school's highest honor for students granted each year.
The teen, who was active in the school's bowling team and part of an international baccalaureate program, had an "amazing work ethic and continuous drive to do the very best that he could," Wolf said.
"Justin always looked wide-eyed at the future and was always eager to get out there and to make a difference. Justin lived by the Golden Rule: Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. And this character is how we remember Justin, who was honest, trustworthy, resilient and dependable."
Baldwin also was memorable, he said: a competitive, intelligent youth intent on earning all A's and excelling in photography, drawing and creative writing. She dreamed of attending college and studying neuroscience.
"Madisyn was always a bright light. And her smile and laugh were beautifully contagious," Wolf said. "Madisyn carried herself with a positive and radiant energy that everybody could feel when she walked into the room. ...We have no doubt that she was on a path to do some incredible things in her life."
The haunting loss of the teens, as well as two other students, Hana St. Juliana and Tate Myre, amid a pandemic meant the class of 2022 "will be known as a class that has no comparison — not in the past or in the future," said Thomas Donnelly, the school board president.
For Weaver, the tragedy has brought him closer to many students but has forged a special relationship with Kylie.
On the day of the shooting Weaver, then a deputy superintendent for the district, ran into Oxford High School, where his two children attend classes. He found the scene of the shooting, the four students who died, and Kylie, who was shot in the chest and bleeding badly. He tried to stem her bleeding until emergency responders arrived.
“I was helping Kylie, holding her wounds and waiting for assistance to arrive. That day has deeply impacted me,” Weaver told The Detroit News.
Kylie spent more than a month in hospitals before returning home in January.
Weaver recalled a moment when Kylie was in a classroom after she resumed taking classes and she spoke to Weaver about taking care of himself after his promotion to superintendent in March.
“She basically showed she cared more about me and where I was at by simply saying, ‘I want you to take care of yourself when you are superintendent.’
“I was quite touched. Deeply moved. Quite honestly, I cried.
“I have a fond relationship with Kylie. Her life from that point on has been an inspiration to me. I have witnessed her recovery, her spirit and attitude and love and kindness.”
In her speech as the senior speaker Thursday, Kylie noted the bonds formed through the tragedy.
"When I think of an Oxford Wildcat, I think of being courageous. Courageous means to be brave and not terrified of danger or pain. Throughout these past few months, we helped one another, and when I say we, I mean first responders, students, teachers, administrators, parents, neighbors, family and friends," she said. "These people are all courageous. They are brave from one another. They are heroes."
Weaver said he is extremely proud of his seniors.
“We are going to miss Justin and Madisyn tremendously. They are just wonderful examples for our community and our students of what it means to be a wildcat and member of the Oxford community,” Weaver said. “As far as the graduates, I want to tell them I am extremely proud of their perseverance and the grit they have shown through this year. And that I love them and I will be there for them.
“I hope they continue to pull together and support one another.”
Bri Barrows, 17, also graduated Thursday night with her classmates. She will attend Michigan Technical University, study mechanical engineering and play on the Upper Peninsula school’s soccer team.
“It feels relieving to finally leave, after everything that happened. It is also sad and it’s bittersweet,” Bri said.
She was friends with Justin and knows some of the students who were shot in the attack. Her faith in God got her through the last six months, she said.
“Right after it happened, we were distraught and lost. I was with friends and family constantly. I looked to God with everything. God became stronger. I did go to church. I prayed with friends, attended vigils,” she said.
“The day after when I found out Justin passed, I was really having a hard time. I went and hung out with friends and talked over it,” she said.
Bri was in school on the day of the attack, walking to fourth hour when the shooting began.
“And I turned around and there was a mob of people running at me. Some people said there were gunshots. I ran a few feet. I stopped and didn’t believe it,” Bri said. “I heard three gunshots and I kept running.”
To this day, the sound of an ambulance brings Bri back to Nov. 30.
“I heard screaming on that day,” she said.
The shooting has caused her to not take anything or anyone for granted, Bri said.
“I cherish every moment. I never know what could happen. That happened,” she said. “I don’t think it will be normal again. Everyone will start to feel easier, but it will never be normal.”