It was after 3 a.m. one day last December, and James Wilhite sat in a hospital waiting room, his face swollen from crying as he waited for word on whether his brother, Troy, would survive a late-night car accident.
Troy did, but as a quadriplegic. So for the next few months, James, a senior at Thousand Oaks High School, spent more time in hospital rooms at Troy's bedside than in classrooms studying.
Later in the year, nearly every free moment in the teenager's busy life was spent helping his mother with Troy's 24-hour care.
On Thursday, it was Troy's turn to be there for James. In his first outing in three months, Troy sat in a wheelchair on the high school stadium's infield grass and watched his kid brother graduate.
"I didn't really think I'd be able to make it here, so to be there for him during this totally important time in his life means the world to me," said Troy, 24.
James was among the 523 graduates at Thousand Oaks High on Thursday. The ceremony was one of several in the east county on Thursday night, including at Westlake, Moorpark, Simi Valley, Royal and Santa Susana high schools. Graduations at Fillmore, Ventura and Buena high schools also took place Thursday.
High schools in Oxnard, Santa Paula, Newbury Park, Ojai and Camarillo will host ceremonies today.
Thursday was also the last day of school for thousands of younger Ventura County students, while thousands more leave classes for the summer today. Record numbers of them, however, will be attending summer school sessions that begin next week and June 25.
In Thousand Oaks on Thursday, under sunny skies, members of the Class of 2001 walked across a stage to enthusiastically accept their diplomas.
After being greeted by cheers from the hundreds of friends and family members crowded into the school's football stadium bleachers, graduates listened to five student speakers and heard performances by the school's choir and madrigal singers.
The speakers told their peers to embrace challenges, celebrate their diversity and stick together as they begin their futures--which for most of them will mean college.
"We are somewhere in between seeing our parents every day and only e-mailing when funds are low and debts are high," said graduate Nicole Angelo.
Before the ceremony, anxious graduates wearing their green and white caps and gowns lined up outside the stadium. "There are so many emotions all at once," said 18-year-old Mayra Zuniga.
James was feeling emotional, too.
The 18-year-old had taken only five classes during the spring semester so he could spend the afternoons with Troy. Still, he said before the ceremony, he did hours of homework each night, in addition to church activities and studying for the Academic Decathlon. Despite a rocky start last semester, he is graduating with a 3.2 GPA.
"I don't know how I did it, really," he said.
Thousand Oaks High Principal Jo-Ann Yoos said she has been impressed with James' maturity as he grappled with the pressures at home and managed to maintain some normalcy on campus.
"He's such a nice young man, and he's endured a senior year not many of us would want," Yoos said.
James plans to stick close to home at Moorpark College in the fall, before transferring to a UC school in two years. He hopes to go into medicine, a field that has intrigued him since his brother's accident.
His parents, Maria and Roy Wilhite, said they couldn't be prouder, as it would have been easy for James to give in to the pressure the whole family has experienced in the last six months.
"James has gone through so much emotionally with his brother," Maria Wilhite said. "He has really given everything he has to be able to graduate and be there for Troy, too."