This wasn't exactly the graduation ceremony Foday Gibateh envisioned for himself.
Foday never thought for one moment that he'd be paralyzed from the waist down, watching via Skype from Magee Rehabilitation Hospital, as the inaugural graduating class of the Boys' Latin Charter School Warriors walked the stage of the Annenberg Center.
Foday was supposed to be among the close-knit seniors onstage with Mayor Nutter and Gov. Corbett, who gave the commencement speech. After all, the 18-year-old from Southwest Philadelphia was the first of his 80 classmates to get into a four-year school. The admissions letter from Penn State Berks came Nov. 11, culminating an application process he had navigated virtually by himself.
"He called me at work one day and said, 'Mom, I have a surprise for you. I got accepted at Penn State,' " Marie Gibateh recalled. "He did all his own stuff."
But things changed dramatically on a nondescript day in February.
Foday and two of his schoolmates were headed up Kelly Drive in his friend's Hyundai when they were hit from behind.
He doesn't remember what kind of vehicle it was. What he does remember is that the impact catapulted the Hyundai into oncoming traffic, causing another car to crash into the back passenger side, where Foday was sitting.
All of the boys were wearing seat belts, but Foday - the son of immigrants from Sierra Leone - was the only one seriously hurt, suffering a spinal-cord injury that left his legs paralyzed and his arms with some feeling.
"It's been very tough," said David P. Hardy, Boys Latin CEO, who awarded Foday his diploma last week. "It really didn't hit me until I was [planning] for graduation. . . . He didn't have to be here right now, if not for the great medical care in Philadelphia."
Ashlee Goldsmith, Foday's attending physician, says her patient is probably looking at nine more weeks of rehab to train his partially paralyzed arms in everyday tasks, such as using utensils and a toothbrush.
She says Foday will need an attendant to help with his care while at Penn State, but she believes he'll surpass expectations. To understand Foday's determination, all you have to do is see how he pushed himself to complete the classwork necessary to graduate on time with his class.
It's the same work ethic that enabled 96 percent of the senior class to go on to college.
At Boys' Latin, they call it the Warrior spirit.
His own celebration
Before the graduation ceremony at Annenberg was Skyped in, staff members at Magee wheeled Foday, wearing cap and gown, to the front of the room and lavished him with graduation gifts. Suffice it to say, he'll be repping the Nittany Lions hard with all the Penn State gear he received.
"I feel good - better," Foday said as he tried to negotiate a piece of graduation cake. "I feel accomplished. It's like a new start."
Obviously, there will be some dark days ahead. But they sure are brighter then those that are past, when Marie cried so much she was put on antidepressants.
The support from the Magee staff has been Foday's anchor.
Among them is Joe Davis, 55, a Magee social worker, who has been where Foday is. A gunshot wound put Davis in a wheelchair 31 years ago. He went on to earn a master's degree at Penn.
Yes, Foday will "be depressed. He'll feel ashamed and 'less than,' but that's normal," Davis said. "Hopefully he'll take small steps along the way. It could be as small as eating without getting sick, or not taking as much medication . . . small steps."
Foday, who will study business at Penn State, watched the screen intently as the classmates he knew so well - many whom have visited daily - received their diplomas.
At the end of the Annenberg ceremony, Hardy told the audience that while they may have thought the 80 assembled were the first to receive their diplomas, they technically weren't.
Foday Gibateh was.
No, this wasn't the graduation Foday envisioned.
But considering what could have been, his accomplishment was even bigger than he could have imagined.