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High school in Oklahoma has one-man senior class

Posted September 3

— The fall semester was barely under way, but Jared Shepherd was secure in his belief that he would be the senior class president and homecoming king at his high school.

"Obviously, valedictorian won't be that hard to get here," he said.

"Here" is Hanna High School, located about 70 miles south of Tulsa in McIntosh County.

There's no need to conduct a vote for homecoming king or senior class president.

The ballot would have one name.

Shepherd is a one-man senior class. Hanna has 27 students in grades 9-12, but he's the lone senior.

That's unusual "even for us," principal David DeWalt said. "I'm sure you don't get to see that too often."

According to an Average Daily Membership Report released by the Oklahoma Secondary Schools Activities Association in July, Hanna has the smallest enrollment of any high school in the eastern half of the state.

The Tulsa World reports that Hanna presented diplomas to 12 seniors in 2016, but the school had graduating classes as small as three in this millennium. It runs in cycles, according to DeWalt. Barring any move-ins, Shepherd will be a solo senior in the Class of 2018.

"I think it's probably a unique opportunity for a unique young man." DeWalt said. "Jared is one of a kind. He's funny. He's a good kid. He's a little ornery at times, but he's a hard-working, good kid."

What's it like to be the only person in your class?

It's normal. Hanna's sophomore and freshman classes have double-digit populations, but Shepherd is accustomed to being the only person in his grade. He graduated kindergarten by himself. He said five students in his grade (three girls, two boys) have moved in and out of the school district in the years since.

It's boring, at times. Shepherd socialized primarily with big brother Beau and an older pack of classmates in the past. Because they're no longer in school, Shepherd said it's "kind of boring" being the only one left.

"It's something I've got to get used to, I guess," he said.

Shepherd has younger friends he can hang out with at school, but most don't arrive until after they return from morning vocational-tech classes. He didn't seem to lack friends during a recent lunch hour. He sat down at a small table to eat nachos in the school cafeteria and was joined by five classmates — all males, all wearing boots. Photos of past senior classes hang from the cafeteria walls. Before lunch, he pointed out photos of his grandparents.

It's cool. The perks of being a lone senior — class president, homecoming king, valedictorian — came up during an interview session at the school. An underclassman will have to be promoted to homecoming queen since there are no senior girls.

There's another reason why being the only senior is neat.

"When I was little, I always looked up to the seniors," he said. "I guess it's kind of cool that if the little kids need somebody to look up to, I guess they could look up to me."

The bottom line is Shepherd wouldn't trade this experience for anything else. He thought about going to another school a couple of years ago so he could give football a try (Hanna doesn't field a football squad). But this is where he wants to be. Whoever said familiarity breeds contempt doesn't understand how he is wired.

Shepherd said he knows just about everyone in the school system, adding that he might have trouble with names of a few elementary school students. Scrolling through a list of high school students, he said a few words about each of them. He grew up with this person. That person is related. This kid moved in a few years ago.

"It's a little town," he said. "There really ain't nothing that goes on that people don't know."

On Aug. 14, there were 13 vehicles parked outside the school. With one exception, he knew which student or faculty member had driven every car to campus.

Can you imagine Shepherd at Broken Arrow High School? He can't. Broken Arrow has a high school enrollment of more than 5,000, which is the largest in the state.

Shepherd said a cousin attended school in Broken Arrow before graduating from Weleetka. Shepherd said his cousin, while walking school hallways in Broken Arrow, kept seeing people it seemed like he had never seen before.

"That's not my thing," Shepherd said.

Hanna graduated its first senior class — six members strong — in 1926.

The same schoolhouse still serves Hanna students 91 years later, but the schoolhouse isn't as tall as it used to be. Once a two-story building, the top story was lost to either a fire or a tornado, according to local lore.

Now the schoolhouse has only one story, and it serves all students, from elementary school through high school. Kindergartners and pre-K students are taught in an adjacent building. Shepherd said he used to sneak a phone into the restroom when he was little so he could call grandparents to come get him.

The primary schoolhouse has eight classrooms and nine teachers counting DeWalt, who, when not in the principal's office, is teaching math or coaching.

Shepherd is not the only student in his classes. He is joined by students from other grades.

Shepherd's mother, Cindy Layman, works in the school office. So does "Aunt Jenn," alias Jennifer Nester. She's not really an aunt, but she and Layman married cousins, so, close enough.

Talking about students at the school, Layman said, "Kids here, if they want something, they go out and go to work and they go get it."

That's true of the school's only senior. He works to pay for things he wants. He took out a loan to buy cattle. He bought three cows to go along with his horse Skeeter and three dogs — Hank, Blue and Daisy. He also took out a loan to buy a used Chevy truck the day before school started.

Hanna staged a just-for-fun bikini contest at a watermelon festival the weekend after the fall semester began. First prize was $100 and, hey, that would come in handy if you've got loans to pay off, so Shepherd mustered the guts to enter the contest. He won.

Shepherd isn't ready for school years to be over quite yet, but he wishes he were out in the real world making money. Because he wants to be an electrical lineman, he plans to continue his education at the Oklahoma State University Institute of Technology in Okmulgee. He will commute because why live in town when you can live in the country?

Hanna has a post office, an old-school snack shop — where you might see a hound dog lounging on the floor — a few homes and not much else. When it's necessary for Shepherd to go to "town," he prefers Henryetta, Eufaula, Okmulgee and McAlester over bigger burgs.

Country boys embrace country fun. Shepherd loves playing basketball and, as his school's only senior, he's looking forward to being a team leader. But he also likes crappie fishing and hunting.

"We hog-hunt a lot with dogs," said Shepherd, referencing wild hogs that roam the area. "It's nerve-wracking. Those things will tear you up if you're not paying attention."

Shepherd said the biggest hog he and his pals ever snagged weighed a little more than 400 pounds.

"You don't want to get one too big," he said. "Then the meat kind of gets tough, and it's not as good."

Sometimes, Shepherd said, they'll give pigs to folks who don't have much money.

Hanna is fortunate to have its only senior.

Shepherd and acquaintances were zipping down a country road Feb. 19. The road came to a "T." The vehicle he was in kept going straight.

"We jumped the ditch and hit a tree," Shepherd said.

A back seat passenger, Shepherd was slammed into the driver's seat with such force that it knocked the seat off its tracks. His door wouldn't open. He thought he smelled something burning — it was the smell of air bags — so he escaped through a different door.

"As soon as I went to go step out, I was just like a wet noodle," he said. "I just fell down."

His diagnosis was a broken back. Surgery resulted in a few new body parts, like two rods and eight screws. He wore a back brace until May. Immediately after getting a green light, he mowed three yards.?

"The fact that he is alive is a blessing," DeWalt said.

Shepherd said the best part about the first day of his senior year was knowing he gets to play basketball for the Hanna Dragons. He was cleared to play, and he moves like he did before the crash.

"He loves to get after it," DeWalt said.

Schools are the lifeblood of tiny communities. Hanna's population was 138 at the time of the 2010 census. Ball games are must-see events. When basketball season arrives, Shepherd will essentially be the face of Hanna.

"He's a good kid," history teacher Danny Stone said, adding that Shepherd is a "yes sir" and "no sir" type of young man. "He's pretty special."

On the third day of school, Shepherd sat at a back-row desk and listened to Stone talk about e pluribus unum, which means "out of many, one."

At Hanna High School, Jared Shepherd is the one.

What will he do when, years later, it's time to stage a class reunion?

Said Shepherd, "I'll just go out to eat by myself, I guess."

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