They needed just a few seconds to cover the 20 paces, but in that moment they entered another time.
Graduation night delivered the ceremony, the speeches and the proud walk to accept the diplomas.
Before that walk, however, the 250 members of the Thomson High School Class of 2011 walked from the shade of The Brickyard's bleachers onto the manicured grass and onto the field where generations of Bulldogs have celebrated and graduated.
Behind the grandstand, they were a group. They had not chosen that group; it was decided by the calendar that separates them from the Class of 2010 and the Class of 2012. But they had indeed created that group. They were responsible for its strength and for its identity. More than any teacher or principal or policy, they were responsible for the camaraderie they will remember vividly long after names and addresses change. Each of them was responsible for the role they would take within that group. Some had become leaders and some had become pranksters; some were both.
As they eventually reached the field, each would step outside the group. Individuals would step solemnly forward toward graduation. Each would wear the dignified expression appropriate to the occasion.
As they passed beneath the Bulldog painting, many saw the symbolism, or perhaps they saw a friend. So some paused beneath the 'Dog for photos. Some pasted a kiss onto a palm and pressed the palm onto the mascot.
Some had thought their way through this moment and this evening and already were on their way to somewhere.
For others, the finality took hold as they walked into the daylight and into the view of the crowd, a county squeezed onto three banks of bleachers.
They blinked and glanced behind them. If they are like any class who walked this path before them, they saw their classmates' faces more clearly than ever before. The line held no cheerleaders or athletes or scholars or any other description that both acknowledges and slights the individual. The line held hugs and names and faces. It held classmates, who were joining in this ultimate celebration of that distinction.
If they are like any class who walked this path before them, they did not fully grasp that this would be the last time they all would join in a ceremony. Yes, there will be gatherings, and most will attend. But some will be too far away at college. Some will be deployed. Some will be tending to infirm grandparents, or infirm parents. Some will be unable to think of anything besides a sick spouse. The Class of 2011 did not face those thoughts Friday night. Good for them. May they be unmindful of that reality forever.
As it has for other classes, the Bulldog watched. The paint and stone of the Bulldog's frozen smile freed it of any need to pretend.
They rounded that corner and walked toward the ceremony. They wore smiles that were too brave, expressions that were too stern. They showed dignity beyond their years. Many of the Class of 2011 fought tears. They fought silently or openly. They fought tears valiantly. Like all graduating classes before them, many lost.