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Nearly 400 Chippewa Falls High School seniors walked a short distance across a stage Friday night to get their diplomas. But it was the final steps of a long walk along their educational journey.

That was the message Valedictorian Andrea Cray gave her classmates on their last night together as the Chi-Hi Class of 2004.

The ceremony, which ended with the a standing ovation from the crowd and beach balls flying across the gymnasium floor, was full of memories.

Cray talked about her first days of school while fellow valedictorian Jessica Hubbard quoted Dr. Suess. Assistant Principal Jim Martell shared how special it was to have his daughter, Joy, in the graduating class. Principal Dr. James Sauter compared the challenges of the future to those of pearl diving.

School Board President Roberta Rasmus said she wished she could give the students more than a diploma when she met them on stage. If it was in her power, she'd also give them a tool kit to help them through the rest of their lives.

Rasmus said she recently read in a book that: "We make our own decisions then those decisions turn around and make us." The tool kit would help the students make those life decisions, she said.

"A very large portion of it would contain patience," she said. Other life skills in the tool kit would include: generosity, open mindedness, sincerity, the passion to learn, curiosity, forgiveness and the ability to love.

In a valedictorian address, Cray recalled her first day of kindergarten when she was worried if her classmates would like her sideways-ponytail and whether her tricycle would be there when she got home.

By middle school her concerns switched to whether her friends would like her Hanson rock band T-shirt. Chores like remembering her locker combination stressed her out.

When the high school days rolled around, Cray was driving, and getting home safe was on her mind.

But Friday night, as she and her classmates embarked on the future, she said she was the most worried of all, fearing she might fall in the race towards her dreams.

"But we made it this far," she said. "Our track record so far indicates we'll be fine -- even if we stumble a little bit along the way," she said.

Cray finished by giving her classmates a bit of advice.

"Find something bigger than yourself and focus on it," she said.

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She also challenged her classmates to focus on the horizon, because they would then be heading in the right direction.

Speaking of direction, Interim Superintendent Dr. James Leary said each future decision they make will guide the graduates through life.

"What you choose tonight, tomorrow and the rest of your life will determine your future and who you are," he said.

"I wish you success way beyond any of your dreams," Leary said.

Sauter used analogies from the book, "The Pearl Diver."

The message of the book is to be strong, be tolerant and be courageous, he said. He challenged the graduates to possess the same characteristics.

"There are times when life will be stressful and you will feel great pain. But there will also be many more good times. Never give up and use your youthfulness and energy to make the world a better place," he said.

Reach Jeff Hage at jeff.hage@lee.net

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