Broward County

‘It gets better’: Jimmy Fallon brings hope, laughter to somber Parkland graduation

Jimmy Fallon, second from left, poses with graduating Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School students. From left are: Julia Cordover; Fallon; Zachary Huang; Vayun Alapati; and Sabrina Fernandez.
Jimmy Fallon, second from left, poses with graduating Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School students. From left are: Julia Cordover; Fallon; Zachary Huang; Vayun Alapati; and Sabrina Fernandez. Courtesy of Broward County Public Schools

During a large but private graduation ceremony on Sunday, seniors from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High closed the door on a school year marked by tragedy.

Inside the BB&T Center in Sunrise, the stadium where the Florida Panthers professional hockey team plays, more than 400 students donned caps and gowns as their names were called out to cheers and they collected their diplomas.

"Keep making good choices," urged “Tonight Show” host Jimmy Fallon, their commencement speaker. "I'm not saying it because you need to learn it. I'm saying it because you already taught it to all of us.”

Fallon bobbed between humor and uplift during his speech. “I can't promise that life will be easy, but if you make good choices and keep moving forward, I can promise that it will get better in ways you haven't even thought of," he said.

"Today, you are graduating from high school. You should be incredibly proud of yourselves. That does not mean you should rest on your laurels, or your yannys," Fallon said.

After the ceremony, he added a tweet:

Congratulations Marjory Stoneman Douglas Class of 2018! You are not just the future - you are the present. Keep changing the world. Keep making us proud. #MSDStrong#YouAreThePresent.

Marjory Stoneman Douglas Advanced Placement Government teacher Jeff Foster said he “orchestrated” the Fallon appearance at graduation.

Foster told the Miami Herald that he met Fallon at the March for Our Lives demonstration in Washington, D.C., in March.

There, Foster said, he asked Fallon to consider surprising the senior class. Foster only teaches seniors, and is credited by prominent Parkland activist Emma Gonzalez for helping her take on the NRA in media appearances and a now-viral speech at a gun rally.

Fallon and Foster texted back and forth for a couple of months, he added, before the appearance was finally made a reality Sunday.

Fallon's remarks at the graduation ceremony came on a bittersweet day, as the Class of 2018 both celebrated their achievement and honored the memory of classmates that could not join them.

Four graduating seniors — Nicolas Dworet, Joaquin Oliver, Carmen Schentrup and Meadow Pollack — were killed during the school shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas in February.

Two other students in the class -- Kaitlyn Critelli and Ethan Lalinde -- died in 2016 and were also honored during the ceremony.

The school held a moment of silence Sunday for the 17 victims of the Parkland shooting.

Family representatives received posthumous diplomas and a glass-encased cap on behalf of the seniors.

Andrew Pollack, Meadow’s father and an active proponent of school safety, did not attend the ceremony but instead said his son Hunter would collect the 18-year-old’s diploma on Sunday.

“Today my baby should be walking across the stage to receive her high school diploma. Instead her brother @PollackHunter is receiving it on her behalf because she was killed,” Pollack wrote on Twitter.

Manuel and Patricia Oliver, whose 18-year-old son Joaquin died in the shooting, were quoted in a Tweet by their advocacy group Change the Ref as saying, “Today was supposed to be our son Joaquin’s high school graduation. This is exactly the moment when the mission is more important than how we feel.”

In photos posted to social media, Patricia Oliver is seen holding up her son’s cap and gown while wearing a shirt that says “This should be my son.”

As is typical with any graduations, seniors decorated the mortar boards of their caps to express themselves.

Chis Grady, a member of the Never Again anti-gun violence movement, wore a cap bearing the March for Our Lives logo.

David Hogg, another student activist, spray painted his mortar board orange to call attention to National Gun Violence Awareness Week. As a tassel, he used a $1.05 price tag, which he says symbolizes the amount of money each student in Florida is worth to NRA-backed Sen. Marco Rubio. He reached that number by dividing campaign contributions made by the NRA to Rubio by the number of students in the state.

Hunter Pollack, who like his father has at times been at odds with Parkland’s student activists over the issue of gun control, posed for a photo after the ceremony with the Olivers. The family has been vocal about their opposition to the National Rifle Association — Manuel Oliver has called them “bad guys” — and in their support for more restrictive gun laws.

But as the two parties held the diplomas their loved ones had earned but would never hold themselves, any political differences between them were dwarfed by a shared pain.

“So proud of Joaquin Oliver. Such a lovely kid with a very bright future,” Hunter Pollack later wrote on Twitter. “Spent time with his family and his girlfriend today, they’re truly amazing. Way to represent him today, he should’ve been the one to grab his diploma.”

April Schentrup, whose daughter Carmen was killed in the shooting, did not attend the ceremony but expressed her happiness for the graduates.

“For me, it is too painful to celebrate w/o Carmen. But I am proud of Carmen’s friends & classmates on their accomplishments. They’ve overcome so much. I know they will [continue] to make positive changes,” Schentrup wrote on Twitter.

Shannon Recor, a senior at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, talks to the media about her graduation ceremony at the BB&T Center in Sunrise on Sunday, June 3, 2018.

Information from NBC 6 was used in this report.

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