Caitlin Huggins, a huge smile brightening her tired face, stood on her school's stage, applause from family and friends' standing ovation bathing the thin girl dressed in a purple gown and mortarboard.
This was her graduation, a dream fulfilled by the dying 17-year-old through grit and determination. The Bell High School diploma she tightly clutched, nothing could take that away -- not the agony and indignities brought upon her by a long battle with brain cancer. Doctors say she has a month to live.
"This ceremony is a celebration for your success as a student, but you are also a great teacher," said Gov. Jeb Bush, speaking Tuesday night at Huggins's special commencement ceremony, which drew scores of people from this small northern Florida community. "We have your valuable lessons about faith -- above all else, faith -- perseverance and the power of the spirit to help us reach our goals."
Huggins was diagnosed with cancer in 2001, the summer before her freshman year. There were periods of remission, but the day before this school year began, three new tumors were discovered. There was nothing the doctor could do except say she was going to die.
"She told the doctor, 'Well, so are you. And it's all in God's hands. He's the only one who knows when we're going to die,' " said Dana Jones, her guidance counselor and friend. "She's just an amazing child, facing that adversity. She's never met a challenge she couldn't overcome."
The challenges are many. Chemotherapy has robbed Huggins of her weight and hair. While she was able to walk at the commencement ceremony, there was no speech because her cognitive abilities are fading. "I just like the fact that I graduated," was all she could say to a reporter. A small seizure forced an early end to her graduation party.
For her family, too, the ordeal has been unrelenting. Insurance bills and daily 40-mile drives to the hospital in Gainesville are the tangible burdens -- atop the tragedy of watching the oldest of their three children waste away.
"If Caitlin would survive, or had survived, she probably would've been one of those people who would've made a mark on the world," said her mother, Suzanne Crace, her words slipping into the past tense.
The townspeople of Bell have supported the family throughout.
There was the woman who has dropped off loaves of bread every week. There was the jewelry salesman who donated a ring ornamented with a cross, a Bible, a flag girl -- and an angel underneath the stone, representing Huggins being lifted toward Heaven.
All the while, the teenager returned the community's faith in her, studying for the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test so she could earn her diploma. It was in May that she determined her goal would be to graduate with her class, a symbol she could achieve just as much as her 750 schoolmates.
The next month, she took the test while resting on an air mattress Principal Buddy Schofield had placed in his office. Because Huggins can hear men's voices better, Schofield took turns with his assistant and a teacher reading her the questions. That was one of the last times she attended school.
"She passed it, and it was such a fabulous day when we learned the score," said Jones, the counselor. "We love all of our kids, but that was such a special blessing."
Jones, 43, is the vivacious confidante who home-schooled Huggins in preparation for the test, helped her select a letterman's jacket and planned the graduation ceremony, writing the letter inviting the governor and his wife.
She also made possible the small joys teenagers take for granted. For one treat, she and Huggins piled into Jones's new SUV, blasted the stereo and cruised around the football field during practice.
"And I said, 'Now you have to act really cool,' " Jones recalled.
Over the past three years, Jones has grown into a surrogate mother, older sister and best friend.
In a calm moment during Tuesday night's frenzied preparations, a volunteer suggested to Jones there would be relief when the ceremony and party were over.
Jones sighed in reply, "No, because it'll be one day closer."
But on that day, time stopped, forever frozen in the photos where Huggins proudly accepted her diploma.
"It was inspirational," said Bush, who in a private meeting afterward gave Huggins CDs of gospel artist Michael W. Smith as Florida first lady Columba Bush presented her with a crucifix from Rome.
When the meeting was over, Huggins's parents rolled their daughter's wheelchair toward the party in the school's cafeteria. Her blue eyes wide, she looked over her shoulder at the Bushes and shouted in a clear voice that rang through the hallway, "Thank you, guys! Thank you! Thank you! THANK YOU!"
A friend, Nikita Shearin, 17, summed up the feelings of many: "She taught me to live for the day."