William "Tippa" Thomas III stared into the video camera from a hospital bed to deliver a message to the 370 fellow seniors who graduated from Randallstown High School in a ceremony last night.
"I really, really wish that I could be there at graduation, but I'm stuck here getting myself together," said Thomas, the most seriously wounded of four students shot in Randallstown's parking lot May 7.
But when the videotape had finished and the lights came on last night at the Baltimore Convention Center, there was Thomas in cap and gown, sitting in a wheelchair with a teddy bear in his lap.
He had been released for the evening from Kernan Hospital, where he faces months of therapy to regain use of his legs.
As the crowd of 4,000 gave him a standing ovation, Thomas' father pushed him up a long gray ramp to the stage, where he was honored by County Executive James T. Smith Jr. and Baltimore County schools Superintendent Joe A. Hairston.
Thomas was shot in the neck, back and chest when gunfire erupted in the school parking lot after a charity basketball game. He was released from Maryland Shock Trauma Center late last month and transferred to Kernan.
The graduation ceremony featured speeches by U.S. Rep. Elijah E. Cummings and Randallstown Principal Thomas Evans.
"We have been tested like no other class in the history of our school and our county and passed with flying colors," Evans said.
Four suspects have been arrested and charged with four counts of attempted first-degree murder: Matthew McCullough, 17, a Randallstown student; Ronald Johnson, 20, a Randallstown graduate; Antonio Jackson, 21; and Tyrone Brown, 23, known as "Fat Boy."
McCullough was supposed to take May 7 off from school as a "cool-down day" after a difficult week that included a fight in the cafeteria, being taunted by a group of students and a dispute with a football player over a girl, police and school officials say.
That afternoon, about the time school was letting out, an administrator saw him near the school and asked a police officer assigned there to talk to him.
The officer let him go, but he returned a few hours later with Johnson and Tyrone Brown in a gold-colored Honda, police said. They met up with Jackson, who had driven up in a black BMW leased in his name.
A brawl erupted on the steps of the school, and someone retrieved a semiautomatic handgun from the BMW, according to court documents.
Witnesses said they saw Tyrone Brown fire shots over the top of the car into the crowd, according to the documents. He then passed the gun to McCullough, police said.
Last night, there were accolades for the other three boys wounded in the shootings: underclassmen Andre Mellerson and Marcus McLain and graduating senior Alex Brown. All but McLain were present.
But the night belonged to Thomas, even though he had to return to the hospital before the ceremony was over.
He said he plans to get another diploma in four years after studying engineering at Morgan State University, where he had been accepted before he was shot.
"Thank you, God," he said, "for allowing me to make it this far."