"It hasn't really sunk in yet."

That's what Shanndara McNamara said after returning from a Wilderness Charter School backpacking trip this week, just in time for graduation. She learned the day before leaving for the trip that she had won a Ford Family Scholarship, an award that will cover the bulk of her college expenses for the next four years at Lewis and Clark College.

McNamara is the first student from Ashland High School to win the prestigious award &

and she's also the first in her family to go to college.

"I feel so incredibly grateful. Everyone told me hard work can really pay off," she said, even as she admitted the reality of it all still hasn't sunk in.

There was a little more of that shellshock going around at Friday's graduation &

and a whole lot of emotion &

as it began to sink into the minds of Ashland graduates that they've finished a portion of a long journey.

Principal Jeff Schlecht gave a few reasons for his love of the 265 graduating members of the class of 2007. They're smart, he said, with SAT and ACT scores off the charts, with the high combined GPA scores of the athletic teams and a class exceptionally proficient in the performing arts. He noted that the choirs just performed a concert that was mystical, "which, as (choir director) Russ Otte would say, is above magical."

It's a class that distinguished itself athletically and academically, with drama, music, speech and debate, and vocational arts students all bringing home state awards. Community members and groups contributed $121,320, awarded to 62 graduates, which was added to other scholarships and grant monies the students received. Schlecht had more to say about the philanthropic attitude of the class of 2007, adding that giving can be disguised in many ways such as compassion, understanding and love.

"Love remains the only gift that multiplies when you give it away," he said.

Senior President Em Dickey set the tone with an emotional senior message in which she talked about having loved high school and all the people with whom she attended school, saying she did not want to use the past tense of the word "love."

"Very soon it is time to say goodbye. Goodbye to the school, the town and the people who have made me who I am. I know it's going to be OK though," she said, choking up. "I know that this sadness I feel is worth it because I wouldn't be so sad if it hadn't been so wonderful."

Dickey wasn't the only one choking up while delivering her speech, prompting Schlecht to say at one point, "Anybody have a box of Kleenex? It needs to be right here."

"Yes, this is a graduation from high school. But more importantly, it's a graduation from all that we've known in our young lives. Today we're given the opportunity to celebrate us &

what has been and what is to come," said salutatorian Tom Miner, one of seven student speakers at Friday's ceremony. "I mean let's just take it all in, because we have done it! Has it hit you yet? It's a new beginning."

Miner spoke of a continued search for meaning in life, quoting from Dr. Viktor Frankl, author of Man's Search for Meaning, "What matters is not the meaning of life in general, but rather the specific meaning of a person's life at a given moment."

Miner went on to thank Ashland High School teachers, who, he said, have the most important job &

that of teaching people to be people. He, too, was choking up by the time he reached the end of his speech, when he exhorted his classmates to continue to change the world by imparting what they've learned and by continuously searching for meaning.

Before the graduates went on to receive their diplomas, Oregon's Poet Laureate, Lawson Fusao Inada, kept his keynote speech short and sweet, prefacing it by saying that he was intimidated to follow such a bunch of bright, warm, smart and witty kids. He said they're much smarter and more sophisticated than his own generation, and that as the 9/11 generation they've already been through a lot.

"Respect their experiences that have come through these troubled complex times," he said.