Senior Year: What’s next?

Orange County High School seniors Khadijah Williams, left, and Dillon Craig, right, will take divergent paths after their May 18 graduation. Williams will head to James Madison University this fall, while Craig will report to U.S. Marine Corps basic training at Parris Island, S.C., in September. 

The final installment in a series following Dillon Craig and Khadijah Williams through their senior year at Orange County High School.

There was a time when college applicants had an inkling of their future as soon as they saw the “fat” envelope or the “thin” one from their dream school. Delivered by a mail carrier, the bulging envelope held an acceptance letter and forms to complete and return. The heartbreakingly slim one—well, you know.

These days, students find out the big news online, and oddly enough, that can involve a lot more suspense.

So it was for Orange County High School senior Khadijah Williams, who has wanted to attend James Madison University (JMU) since she was 12 years old. One evening in mid-March, Williams was working as a stagehand in the Four County Players production of “Hello, Dolly!” During intermission, she checked email on her phone and discovered a message from JMU saying the crucial “decision” was posted online.

Williams had a show to help run; there was no time to log on to the internet. But afterwards, heart in her throat, she tried to access the JMU site on her phone. A weak connection in Barboursville foiled her plans. She dashed from one theater friend to another in search of better cell service—still no luck.

“OK, here we go!”

With the level of off-stage drama rising, she and her pals holed up in the box office.

“So I hook up to the Wi-Fi and I pull it up, and it was still taking forever. It finally comes up,” Williams said, “and I was like, ‘OK, here we go!”

She and her friends held their collective breath.

“I didn’t read the whole letter—just the beginning: ‘Congratulations on your acceptance,’ and I went off! All you heard from the box office was a group of girls screaming and just going off.”

It was an evening Williams, who plans to major in theater, will never forget. Both she and her classmate Dillon Craig say they are trying to soak in all the good times before they graduate on May 18 and head off on their respective journeys.

Parris Island in September

Craig’s plans could not be more different from Williams.’ The Marine recruit will ship out to Parris Island in September. He had wanted to become a K-9 handler, but word came down that he got his second career choice instead: infantry with an emphasis on “recon”—reconnaissance work.

“It’s definitely going to be a lot tougher than I was planning, but I think I can do it,” he said.

Over the course of the year, Craig has gradually turned his attention away from his life at school. In the fall, he decided not to compete on the JROTC Raiders team, a sports activity he had loved during his previous years in high school, and this semester, he dropped Algebra II and Latin 3 and downgraded his diploma from advanced to standard.

With few graduation requirements left, he has had a light schedule this semester and no Standards of Learning (SOL) exams to worry about. He is earning credit as a classroom aide for science teacher Anna Burkett and taking only one class, U.S. government with Chris Murray. By 11 a.m. he is out the door.

In previous interviews, the Locust Grove resident has talked about wanting a part-time job, and now he has one as an electrician’s assistant. He’s hoping to pick up more hours after he graduates and is blunt about his desire to graduate and get on with activities that interest him much more than academic subjects.

Long runs, “wheelbarrows”

and lots of jump squats

Outside school, he’s also taking part in physical training (PT) with fellow military recruits in Fredericksburg. He has been going once a week for the past several months and said he planned to start going twice a week.

The regimentation and the rigor of PT have increased in recent weeks. Craig said PFCs (Private First Class) typically run the workout, and recruits must address them by their title and ask for permission to speak. No random questions are allowed.

As for PT itself, Craig described a truly impressive workout that “just killed your legs.”

“We started out on a soccer field. We ran about a mile down and back. We did wheelbarrows halfway and then we switched with a partner and did it halfway, and then we did 30 jump squats, and we repeated it all four times,” he said.

The wheelbarrow exercise was not an opportunity to ride down the soccer field in style. Teamed up in pairs, recruits walked along while holding the ankles of their partners, who were walking on their hands.

Come September, Craig will undergo the training of a lifetime at Parris Island. Although the South Carolina heat may not be quite as bad as in August (when he’d originally thought he was shipping out), he still is bracing himself for an intense experience.

“It’s mainly going to be mental and pushing past the thinking, ‘I can’t do it’ to ‘I will do it,’” he said.

With his characteristically sunny outlook, he added, “Once I finish boot camp, I know I’ll make a lot of friends and bonds that can’t be broken and will have a lot of people who will have my back. So putting all [the difficulties] aside, I think it’s going to be a great time, no matter how hot or how hard it is. It’ll be worth it in the end.”

A purple jumpsuit with a cape

A resident of Orange, Williams began her senior year bubbling over with energy and enthusiasm. She was looking forward to her participation, on stage and behind the scenes, in school drama productions and shows at Four County Players and Live Arts. But there was a rocky period in the fall after her grandmother died. Williams missed some school and got behind in her work.

Since then, she has rebounded. The happy news from JMU has validated not just her commitment to her extracurricular involvement in theater but also all the effort she put into her advanced classes as a student in the Blue Ridge Virtual Governor’s School.

Like Craig, Williams has had an academically undemanding schedule this semester, free of SOL exams. In addition to theater and choir, she is taking Advanced Placement statistics and English 12.

The statistics class has been an exercise in tedium for Williams, all the more so because it is online and she is not naturally drawn to math. Unconvinced the course credit would help her in college, she decided not to take the AP exam at the end of the class. She has enjoyed English with John Pilat, however, especially when she and her classmates have read plays aloud during class.

In the days leading up to last week’s prom, she was excited about going to the big party at the Hornet Sports Center with a group of friends. What would she wear? Williams’ expressive face broke into a wide smile: “I got a jumpsuit instead of a dress, which looks fantastic. It’s purple with gold beadings on the top, and it has a cape that comes out from the waist down, and it is so cool!”

“Everything will be OK in the end”

Williams and Craig are at a point where they can look back on senior year with the wisdom of hindsight.

If she could relive the year, Williams said she would ease up on herself: “At the beginning, I was a girl who always had a plan. I knew what I wanted to do. I knew how I was going to do it, and I was going to do it that certain way. But as things progressed, different things started to happen, and my plan kind of fell apart. And I started to freak out because I couldn’t follow my plan exactly as I had wanted to. So I guess if I were to do senior year over, I would just chill out.”

For his part, Craig said, “I wouldn’t change a single thing because of all the bonds and memories I’ve made. I wouldn’t want to risk losing those and altering that. So I’m happy with the way everything turns out because everything happens for a reason, whether it’s good or bad. There’s a quote that says, ‘Everything will be OK in the end, and if it’s not OK, it’s not the end.’”

Both students had ready advice for juniors peeking over the horizon toward their senior year.

Craig said seniors would do well to study hard but also enjoy the growing freedom that comes with being on the precipice of adulthood: “Go out, spend time with your friends; have good quality time before you go to college or go off to get a job. … My main advice to anybody is to make memories because memories will last, whereas knowledge fades.”

Thinking back over her senior year, Williams offered advice that complemented Craig’s: “A lot of people tell us to make sure we’re on top of everything. Make sure this gets done, make sure that gets done. … And it’s just a lot of deadlines and pressure. So I guess my advice would be to take time to just breathe and take care of yourself. … Just taking some time to take care of yourself is pretty important.”

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