"We have reached the point where we finally have to look deep inside ourselves and figure out exactly what it is that we want in this life," said valedictorian Carli Fernandez, addressing about 529 classmates on May 23 during Darby High School commencement exercises at the Jerome Schottenstein Center.

"We have reached the point where we finally have to look deep inside ourselves and figure out exactly what it is that we want in this life," said valedictorian Carli Fernandez, addressing about 529 classmates on May 23 during Darby High School commencement exercises at the Jerome Schottenstein Center.

Fernandez' statement begged the question asked of seniors more than 100 times, or as Superintendent Dale McVey said, "a million times".

"What do you want to be when you grow up?" Fernandez asked, repeating the question. "Some of us have had a consistent answer to this question over the years and some of us have formulated different answers every time."

She said it would be interesting to go back in time and see how everyone responded 10 years ago.

"Luckily, for me, I have documentation," said Fernandez. "I was sifting through old boxes and I stumbled upon a laminated piece of construction paper from preschool. It had a picture of my 5-year-old face underneath a caption that read, 'When I grow up, I want to be… . Underneath the picture was my completion of that sentence. Let me tell you! I had high aspirations as a youngster. I really took the whole 'you can be whatever you wanna be' thing and ran with it. Now, I have it in writing if you don't believe me, but I wanted to be a skunk. Yes, a skunk, as in those furry, little black-and-white creatures that excrete a strong, foul-smelling odor. Now, I know what you are probably thinking right now: 'How in the world is this girl valedictorian?' I would be lying if I said I didn't often wonder the same thing."

Fernandez may wonder, but she is at the top of her class, leaving her audience with no doubt how she achieved the status. She is headed for Notre Dame University in the fall and will study green architecture. In the five-year architectural program, she said, she may have an opportunity to study a year in Italy.

During graduation ceremonies, Fernandez shared the stage with salutatorian James (J.J.) Willard, who will head off to The Ohio State University in the fall, and McVey. Willard plans a double major in finance and economics.

Fernandez and Willard have become friends this final year and are quick to compliment one another.

Prior to commencement, Fernandez said that she, unlike Willard, does not have her future mapped out.

"I am a person who doesn't really look that far ahead," she said. "I don't want to limit myself."

She tried to convey that to her classmates in her speech.

"As we transition into the next stage of our lives," said Fernandez, I just want to make one thing clear: it is okay if you don't have your life figured out quite yet. You are not bound to the constraints of an answer you give when asked what you are going to do with your life. Let's face it: we are teenagers. As much as we would like to believe it, we do not know everything that there is to know. Obviously, as I went through grade school, I realized that being a skunk might not be the most feasible or advantageous career goal to pursue."

McVey said whatever the students choose to do in life, it should be done with passion.

"The difference between adequate results and great achievements is often just one degree," he said, referring to the book "212 Degrees."

He told the seniors to work well with others, to give back to society and keep their sense of humor.

The teachers and administrators at Darby, according to Fernandez, set her on the right path and have created an atmosphere that makes students look forward to going to school every day.

She shared some staff views with the seniors as they prepared to leave the district.

"Knowing the members of the class of 2008 has made me a better person, teacher and administrator," said assistant principal Phil Smith. "I have seen you react with generosity to those in need, kindness to those who have felt sorrow and courtesy to those who have had their feelings hurt. And laughter, so much laughter."

Erin Tarloff, a science teacher, said she and Melissa Gmerek often joke that they wish they could be in the class and graduating with the students.

"Not only because that would mean we were 18 again, which would be great, but because there are so many great, smart, funny and involved people that we would totally hang with and for sure would be best friends 'til the end with."

Fernandez said David Rickert enlightened students with his knowledge, quick wit and sense of humor.

"I always tell my students that no matter how much I like them at the beginning of the year, they will become hooligans at the end of the year and I will be glad to see them go," Rickert said. "This hasn't been the case this year. I can't remember a class that has left such an indelible impression on me and made me so happy to come to work. They pushed me to work hard as an educator, and I met some of the greatest individuals I have ever come into contact with."

It is hard to believe it is done, Fernandez said.

"It has already hit some of us," she said. "For others, like myself, it probably won't hit me until I step foot onto the Notre Dame campus in the fall."

McVey said regardless of a person's ambition and future successes, it all begins with a high school diploma.

catwogan@yahoo.com