There was no mistaking the star of this show. The signs were all around. In the hallway leading to the cafetorium, letters on the wall read, “Congratulations Junior.”
Behind a table with yellow and white cake and punch, a “Congratulations Grad” sign hung with multiple pictures of a student in cap and gown next to it.
And when “Pomp and Circumstance” started playing, it was only Junior who walked down the aisle to the stage while audience members stood and watched.
Chinedu Chinenye Ezeigwe Jr., 22, who is called Junior for short, was this year’s lone graduate from the Wayne D. Boshears Center for Exceptional Programs, Tyler ISD’s school for students with special needs.
Despite the small number of graduates, it held just as much formality as past years with a paper program for guests, a message from the district superintendent and a diploma presentation, along with some unprecedented involvement from the graduate.
Junior, who is autistic, has a gift for music. He can carry a tune with ease and loves to sing and play piano.
So on Wednesday, in addition to reciting the Pledge of Allegiance at his ceremony, he also sang “The Star-Spangled Banner” and the Boshears school song.
“This is one of the most exceptional graduations in TISD,” Pat Sullivan, a Boshears Center nurse, said. “It is very moving, very emotional because the (milestones) that they meet, may not in everybody else’s point of view, be that much, but in ours it’s phenomenal.”
Born and raised in Tyler, Junior is the oldest of three siblings and the son of Chinedu and Ifeoma Ezeigwe. He was a toddler when his mother noticed his speech wasn’t developing as it should have been.
A speech therapist friend suggested she bring him in to her office for therapy, but it was a while before he was diagnosed with autism.
Junior does speak and respond to questions. However, he communicates best through writing.
Junior was 11 years old when he came to TISD’s school for students with special needs, which at the time was at the St. Louis School. Mrs. Ezeigwe said the teachers and staff members of the school have formed an extended family for the Ezeigwes throughout the years.
During a video presentation at the graduation, several of his teachers shared their impressions about Junior — describing him as fun, a delight, talented and caring.
“He’s just a very, very, very neat student, and every teacher that’s ever worked with him just kind of walked away going, ‘Wow. What a neat kid,’” said Brooke Parker, Boshears Center assistant principal and one of Junior’s former teachers.
Lawren Phillips taught Junior for three years and said it’s great to celebrate the transformation of students on graduation day.
“It’s very exciting knowing that I had the three years to kind of pour into him, knowing that my assistants and I were able to build on those skills and take his independence further,” she said.
Mrs. Ezeigwe said the occasion was bittersweet.
“If you notice, I’ve been wiping tears,” she said. “It’s very emotional. It’s been a long ride, (a) long journey. It’s just like leaving a family.”
She said the Boshears Center staff understood her son, and he understood them.
She entrusted him to their care without fear, and the teachers made her feel relaxed and let her know that Junior was their child too.
She said throughout the years, teachers have visited Junior at home to work with him, lent a listening ear when she had concerns and encouraged Junior in the process.
“It has not been a one-person journey,” Mrs. Ezeigwe said. “It has been like a community raising a kid.”
Junior already has started the transition to his next phase in life with a job at Goodwill, where he now works four days a week, his mother said. And he has found another family-like environment there.
But on Wednesday, he officially closed the door on his TISD career. After receiving his framed diploma from TISD Superintendent Gary Mooring, he looked at it and in a voice only those nearby could hear said, “I am a high school graduate.”