Two-hundred and one Warriors took a collective breath as they left Thunen Gym.

"This is real life," one murmured.

In two lines the Del Norte High School Class of 2014 filed past the agriculture room, the band room, across the parking lot and entered Mike Whalen Field. Raucous applause met the graduates from parents, grandparents, siblings and friends who crowded the bleachers and spilled onto the track.

The graduates took their seats and waited for their instructors to call their names, hand them their diploma and wish them well as they negotiate a changing world full of unknowns.

"Experience has continually proven to be our greatest teacher," salutatorians Kirsten William and Kiera Davis told their classmates Friday. "The point is that things are going to go wrong. You're going to fail a test. You're going to fail to show up for an appointment on time. You're going to lose people. But you're also going to build new relationships. You're going to pass a class, and you're going to reach goals and set new ones. The world is happening right now. You are alive right now."

For many students, graduation is a stepping stone to a life away from Del Norte County. Hannah Bowen, whose sash signified her Yurok heritage, said she is headed to Idaho to pursue a career in veterinary medicine. She hopes to be a veterinarian who treats horses.

"My mom has horses," she said. "And I've worked with animals with my aunt. She raises beef cattle."

Chase Markytan and Paul Martinez will also pursue higher education far from Del Norte's redwoods. Both graduates are headed to Santa Barbara City College, where Markytan will pursue a career in business and Martinez will major in industrial and organizational psychology.

For both boys, navigating their classes was difficult, especially algebra. They relied on their teachers to get them through, especially Alison Eckart, who teaches Del Norte High's AVID classes, the school's college-bound program.

"Without her we probably wouldn't know where to go at college or how to function," Martinez said.

Each student took a step into adulthood on Friday, but for James Burgess that step represented four years of being part of a community that accepted him without reservation. Burgess, who has Down's syndrome, will head across the parking lot to College of the Redwoods' Del Norte Education Center, where he will take classes in American sign language and art, said his mother Nina Burgess.

Since he has an individualized education program, Burgess will be able to take advantage of a transition program through Del Norte County Unified School District that will make the road to independence a little easier, Nina Burgess said. He may even look for a job this summer, she said.

Even though Burgess is a special needs student, he participated in band, Future Farmers of America, drama and the track and field team.

"What's neat is I saw another kid take a selfie with him," Nina Burgess said. "That's the belonging. Kids respect him - he's just James."

Valedictorian Raquel Pamplona da Silva is headed to Oregon State University to pursue a career in psychology. But for her, leaving Del Norte High School is bittersweet.

"I'll miss my teachers and the sense of community there is at the school," she said.

Many of the graduates had words of wisdom to impart to Del Norte High's incoming freshmen. Most emphasized the importance of studying, earning good grades and not taking any shortcuts.

Martinez gave them something else to think about.

"Make as many memories as you can because it goes by fast," he said.

Reach Jessica Cejnar at