Deirdre Anderson wasn't sure she wanted to go to Northwestern High's graduation. She wasn't sure she wanted to revisit her pain.
At the last minute, however, she changed her mind. She walked into the Jackie Gleason Theater on June 11, smiling, with her daughters and grandchild at her side.
During the last week of school, Anderson and Arleen White had visited Northwestern's annual awards ceremony for seniors, where they presented $1,000 scholarships in honor of their sons -- both of them lost to violence. Anthony White would have graduated in 2006. James ''J.T.'' Anderson would have graduated this year.
Then, on graduation day, Deirdre Anderson found herself sitting in a special seat behind the Class of 2008. From there, she could see the empty chair draped with a white cap and gown -- the cap and gown that James would have worn. She fanned her face with her hands and wiped a tear from each eye. ''Whew,'' she said, as the graduates filed past.
Moments later, the room went dark. A slide show of highlights from the Class of 2008 played. Amid photos of the football team's championship season and Mr. Northwestern in his white sash, the screen flashed a tribute to James. Holding her 11-month-old grandson, Jerrod James Barr, Anderson sprang to her feet and raised her free hand in the air. She wiped away more tears, until her son's image disappeared from the screen.
She cheered the class president's speech. She waved and smiled when she spotted James' friends.
Then, activities director Linda Walden escorted Anderson and her daughters, Nichelle and Nikol, to the front of the room. Walden held the gown open for Anderson to put on. His cap was placed on her head.
She wept once more. Then she thanked Walden and returned to her chair.
Later, she whooped and hollered as her son's friends received their diplomas. She called out to them as they exited the room and waited outside for them like an excited parent. One teen presented her with a khaki shirt bearing James' photo. Anderson took off the gown and put on the shirt. She smiled and hugged the young man again.
She was glad she had changed her mind about attending.
''A number of J.T.'s friends were graduating. . . . J.T. was important to them. I needed to be a part of that celebration,'' she said.
``He carries me part of the time. I felt his spirit. I was doing what I was supposed to do.''