It's grad season at high schools around the province and thoughts of dresses, gifts, dates and parties are all most Grade 12 students think about.

But the six graduates at Lakewood Academy in Glenwood also made room at their ceremony for a student who didn't live to see his big day.

Fewer students each year graduate from the central Newfoundland school. The 2017 photograph in the school hallway shows just three boys and three girls, a tight-knit class who consider themselves as good as family.

Glenwood grads, caps and gowns

Lakewood Academy's class of 2017 proud in their caps and gowns (submitted by Cathy Rowe)

That's why they decided a missing brother who's not in the picture needed to be part of their big celebration.

"They wanted it to remain uplifting and positive and knew they could honour him in that way," said principal Cathy Rowe.

Tragic accident

Nearly nine years ago, where the Trans Canada Highway joins McGee Road into Gander, eight-year-old Rorry Calder died in a terrible car accident.

Dylan Snow was Rorry's best friend.

 "I didn't take it well. My mom told me," he said. "I still remember now, it was around 12:30. I remember I couldn't breathe. I had a panic attack."

nl-calder-rory-familypic

Rory Calder was killed in a 2008 traffic accident in Gander, just two days before his ninth birthday. ((CBC))

For years after the accident that killed her son, Brandi Calder marked the site with a display of stuffed animals.

She said she deals with her loss every day, and she always knew that what could have been Rorry's graduation day would be tough.

"It's each day at a time, still," she said. "One day at a time. Things like this bring it all back. It's bittersweet."

So the six graduates who would have shared that day determined to make it special for Rorry's family.

"Rorry has been remembered every year in our awards ceremony," said principal Rowe. "And the graduates approached me and felt as he was part of their class and would be graduating this year, they would like him to be part of the event."

Touching tribute

"I was quite impressed because it's going on nine years," said Brandi Calder.

'The one thing I probably found the most touching, and it wasn't planned, but at the first dance they had with their parents, all three boys danced with his mother.' - Cathy Rowe

"When this happened they were young children. Now they're young adults. So for them to think of it and put it all together themselves, it was overwhelming. Because you think, if he were here, would he have this level of maturity too?" she said.

The grads and their parents had it all planned out, said Cathy Rowe.

"They had a special vase named in his honour, and when the girls received their roses at the grand march, they presented it to his mother. One of our students also did a tribute to him at the church service.

"The one thing I probably found the most touching, and it wasn't planned, but at the first dance they had with their parents, all three boys danced with his mother," she said.

Brandi Calder

Brandi Calder lost her 8-year-old son Rorry in a car crash in 2008. (Leigh Anne Power)

"[It] never registered to me at all until one of them came over and took my hand. Then I bawled like a baby because I'm blubbering all the time anyway. It really set me off," Calder said.

 "It was one of the little — I call him a little boy because he still is to me — but one of the boys who I'm close to the parents as well, so I watched him grow up from a baby. So I was flattered but not shocked. But then when the other two boys did it too, I was just a mess ... All I could think of was "This is supposed to be Rorry.""

'Yes, a lot of loss and a lot of memories, but a complete honour to know he was loved that much from his class.' 
- Brandi Calder

Rorry's best friend Dylan gave the church tribute, which he says now is a bit of a teary blur.

"I just talked about how he was my best friend growing up. We were together since I remember. Our families were always close. It was just really hard. I couldn't finish the speech. I had to get my teacher to go up and finish it for me. It was really emotional."

"When Dylan started to cry, it kind of set me off," said graduate Chelsea Bath. "It doesn't seem fair. It's really sad. But he'll always be with us, and that's something we treasure too."

At the end of the night, the Lakewood grads released purple lanterns ... Rorry's favourite colour ... into the darkened sky.

Happy tears

The kid they remember as the class clown, the funny guy, the one who'd host sleepovers and wrestle his best friend on the trampoline until they knocked heads ... was still with them.

Flower vase

Lakewood Academy graduates presented a memorial vase and white roses to Rorry Calder's mother, Brandi. (submitted by Bethany Thompson)

Brandi Calder says she felt that too, even through her tears.

"It was happy tears. Yes, a lot of loss and a lot of memories, but a complete honour to know he was loved that much from his class. Not just his family and those who are supposed to love you unconditionally. But to be loved like that from classmates is nice to see."