Forget, for a moment, about all those commencement speeches, all the fond farewells, all those calls to future leaders among the sea of graduates at ceremonies this spring.
Sunday, a young woman took 10 or so strides across the Civic Auditorium stage, collected her Omaha Central High School diploma and, in the process, said more about perseverance than any speaker could.
Bria Bell, 18, had every reason to quit, to wallow in her pain, to not see this day.
On Jan. 16, 2009, her then-boyfriend pointed a gun to her temple and, thinking the safety was on, pulled the trigger. A bullet passed through her left eye and exited the right side of her brain.
Doctors gave her a 5 percent chance of living as she spent several days in a coma and several weeks in the hospital.
She survived. Her eyesight did not.
With the help of her parents, Margie and Bryan, and Omaha Public Schools teachers and staff, she took courses even when she barely had the strength to get out of bed. When she regained enough stamina to return to school last fall, she rose at 5:30 a.m. every day to catch a bus downtown.
At Central, she sat through classes geared for those with sight and through extra sessions for those without.
She began the long process of learning how to walk without sight, how to read without functioning eyes, how to live without worry.
And Sunday, she graduated on time with her class, just 16 months after that ugly night.
Now she has added motivation to get her next diploma.
After reading Bria's story in The World-Herald in February, Patrick Borchers, a Creighton University vice president and former law school dean, met with current Creighton School of Law Dean Marianne Culhane. The two were so impressed with Bria's resilience that they decided to offer Bria a carrot: a full-tuition scholarship to Creighton University Law School once she graduates from college.
The offer arrived last month with a Creighton Law School hat and mug.
Bria initially thought the package contained just good wishes and a little swag. Then somebody read her the letter.
“The faculty of the Law School and I were pleased to hear about your dream of attending college,” Culhane wrote. “We know you can do it. As an additional incentive, we want to offer to you a full tuition scholarship to the Creighton University School of Law.”
Retail value: $30,000 a year. For once, the outgoing and ornery Bell was speechless.
“My mouth dropped,” she said.
The Bells say it's just one of several jaw-dropping, eye-watering experiences they've had with the second-youngest of their five children. She received a Perseverance Award from Omaha's Omega Psi Phi fraternity in April. She also danced with her dad that month and was crowned Miss Cotillion at the annual ball of the Omaha chapter of the Links Inc.
After that ceremony, Margie Bell said, about 10 elementary-school-age girls surrounded Bria.
“We just wanted to meet you,” they said, and Bria blushed.
This weekend, Bria was bracing herself to deal with another youngster: Her brother Christian, 13, wanted to be there as her escort on graduation night.
Like any good sister, Bria has tormented her little brother. When Christian kept asking her to squeeze his hand as she was coming out of her coma, she scratched it instead. She has threatened to plop her artificial eye in his cereal bowl. And last week, she vowed to slap him on the back of the head if he did anything while escorting her at the graduation ceremony.
On Sunday, Christian dutifully performed his job, guiding his sister to her seat as the soon-to-be Central grads filed into the Civic Auditorium.
When the big moment arrived, Bria held onto the purple gown of Thomas Beatty, the classmate in front of her, to make her way up to the stage.
Diploma in hand and a smile on her face, the freshly minted grad then walked out of the hall with her brother by her side.
Bria said she's excited about, and a bit daunted by, what's next. This fall, she'll move to Lincoln, where she will take independent-living classes for the visually impaired and live in a studio apartment. She eventually plans to major in criminal justice. And she can't wait for law school.
“I know it's not going to be easy,” she said. “But (Creighton) is the school I always wanted to go to. I'm very excited.”
Margie Bell said her daughter's story is a reflection of all the graduates who have powered through adversity, who have found some resolve when their world seemed as if it were crumbling.
More than that, it's a call to those who are suffering and thinking about giving up.
“We talk about people being negative and all the bad things that happen in society,” Margie Bell said. “But since this has happened, we have met so many kind and generous people — strangers who have come up to Bria and given her words of encouragement.
“I'm excited for what lies ahead for her. She'll always be my little girl so there's a sad side, too.
“But she's certainly shown me that, regardless of what kind of challenges you face, your possibilities are limitless.”
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