On Sunday afternoon, the 2018 class of Parkland's Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School donned bright burgundy caps and gowns and filled a massive stadium for an emotional graduation ceremony.
Four seniors, however, were missing: Nicholas Dworet, Joaquin Oliver, Carmen Schentrup, and Meadow Pollack. They, along with the 14 others who died in the massacre at the high school, were honored and commemorated during the ceremony.
Their chairs sat empty while their family members accepted their red diplomas.
But the somber ceremony had a surprise twist: Comedian Jimmy Fallon surprised the new graduates and their families as their commencement speaker and delivered an uplifting, touching speech that praised the students' resilience and activism in the face of pain and heartbreak.
The crowd cheered and clapped as Fallon took the stage. "He was so funny, literally everyone went from crying to laughing," one attendee wrote.
"Today you're graduating from high school," the Tonight Show host told the graduates, doling out poignant reflections, mixed with humor, telling the seniors that they should feel incredibly proud of themselves, but "that doesn't mean you should rest on your laurels — or your yannys."
"Some of you will grow up to hear yanny, some of you will grow up to hear laurel, but the most important thing for you to know is that neither of these things will matter by the end of the summer," he went on as the room laughed.
"Here's what will matter: You, the class of 2018, will have graduated. And you won't be classmates anymore. You'll be adults who Facebook search each other at 2 in the morning for the next 10 years."
Fallon has been an avid and vocal supporter of the Never Again movement, founded and led by survivors of the Marjory Stoneman Douglas shooting, and has praised the student activists on his show. He also participated in the March for our Lives event in Washington, DC, a few months ago and helped students from other states attend.
On Sunday, he thanked them for their courage and bravery and encouraged them to keep fighting and stand strong in their convictions as they go on to college and life outside of high school.
"Every bad experience can have something good come out of it. Sometimes things that seem like setbacks can take our lives in directions that we don't expect and they make us better and stronger. You guys have already proved that to everyone. You took something horrific — instead of letting it stop you, you started a movement,” Fallon said. “The whole world has heard your voice and that was you making a choice... That was you choosing hope over fear.”
He encouraged them to make "good choices and keep moving forward," noting that while life might not get easier, it gets better.
"We have no idea what the future holds and that's OK... Don't think about what you want to do," Fallon said. "Think about why you want to do it, and the rest will figure itself out."
He shared with the crowd pieces of advice he would like to tell his younger self, a key one being to "lay off the carbs," before taking a more reflective tone.
"Listen to everyone around you," he advised, and celebrate diversity. There is good in everyone, he said, "if you listen to each other we can find it."
"Work hard for everything. Put one foot in front of the other and keep going, day by day, moment by moment. You always have the chance to be building something, working on something, pushing something up the hill," he continued. "It's not easy, but you have to keep trying, keep failing, have goals and pushing them ahead every day."