For Those Not With Us: Parkland Seniors Graduate and Prepare to Hit the Road To Change

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Joaquin Oliver's mom Patricia. Photo by

In a bittersweet ceremony, the Class of 2018 at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School graduated Sunday facing four empty seats and wearing "MSD Strong" sashes, mortar boards, orange markings and other tributes to the 17 victims of last February's shooting. At the private ceremony, posthumous diplomas were awarded to four seniors killed: Nicholas Dworet, Joaquin Oliver, Meadow Pollack and Carmen Schentrup. Some of their relatives came to receive them; some  said it was too painful to attend. For many others, the sight of the four seats left empty for "those not with us" was equally harrowing. Said one, "If that doesn't shake government leaders to their core, I don't know what would."

Three slain teachers and coaches were also honored with the school's Eagle Award. “Tonight Show” host Jimmy Fallon, who had supported the Parkland activists by providing buses for them to travel to D.C.'s March For Our Lives, put in a surprise appearance as guest speaker. He told the crowd he'd brought his young children so he and they could "see hope and light," and urged the seniors, "Don't let anything stop you." But for many of those present, the day's most poignant moment came as the parents of slain senior Joaquin Oliver took the stage.

Manuel and Patricia Oliver have been among the most visible of the victims' families: They've started #ChangetheRef - named for a talk Manuel had with his son shortly before his death about the concept of a fair game - to raise money to challenge the NRA's agenda and give kids "a disrupting voice" to help foster change, and Manuel has created "Walls of Demand," a series of interactive murals he calls "graphic activism." At Sunday's ceremony, Manuel took the stage wearing a t-shirt that read, "We Demand A Change." Accepting their son's framed diploma, Patricia hoisted it high into the air; she wore a bright t-shirt that proclaimed, "This should be my son.”

In 10 days, many of the Parkland students will head out on a national "Road to Change" barnstorming tour hoping to ensure that heart-rending scene will never be replicated. Starting June 15th at a peace march in Chicago, they plan a 60-day, 20-state bus tour with stops in California, Connecticut, South Carolina and anywhere else gun violence has occurred and, says David Hogg, "the NRA has bought and paid for politicians who refuse to take simple steps to save our lives." Even in places where, says Emma González, "we aren’t necessarily loved," they will hold rallies, roundtables and gatherings to meet fellow survivors, seek common ground, "use our voices to amplify theirs," and try to register some of the four million teenagers who can soon vote for the first time. Another bus tour will simultaneously visit Florida's 25 Congressional districts to do the same. They embark on the tours with two core beliefs. Cameron Kasky: "Our generation can change the game." Hogg: "There’s a lot more love than hate out there." Please, let them be right.

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After the shootings. Reuters photo

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David Hogg's mortar board, referencing the value of each student's life based on NRA donations to Mario Rubio

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