On Friday, 39 seniors will graduate from Pillow Academy in a ceremony to be held at the Leflore County Civic Center.

A baccalaureate ceremony will be held today at 6 p.m. at the school’s Craig Center for Performing Arts.

Caught up in the excitement and leading their class in academic achievement are two classmates and friends, valedictorian Liza McKibben and salutatorian Maggie Taylor, both of whom will give speeches on graduation night.

In the fall, McKibben will be attending Mississippi State University, where she plans to major in kinesiology, the scientific study of human movement.

McKibben said she hopes to become a physical therapist; at least that’s the plan for now.

A self-described perfectionist, McKibben said graduating at the top of her class was something she always wanted.

“I’m pretty strict on myself,” she said. Her parents, Ellen and Dean McKibben, were supportive, she said, but they rarely had to reinforce Liza’s study habits.

At Pillow, she enjoyed history and biology and was inspired by a junior year class in British literature that familiarized her with the poems of John Donne and others.

Her graduation speech will focus on the future, “how Pillow has helped us discover our talents and how we’re going to use them in the future.”

Her own particular talent, she said, is persistence.

“You have to take school seriously and try your best, even though you sometimes might not feel like it.”

McKibben, who started Pillow as a kindergartner and attended the school all the way through senior year, participated in Astra Club, Lions Club Leadership, the Greenwood-Leflore County Chamber of Commerce’s YELL program, Honor Society, Mu Alpha Theta, Photography Club and Model Security Council.

She also served as a Green and Gold Ambassador.

She graduates with a 4.7 grade point average on a 4-point scale. That translates to a grade of 98.24 percent for her high school career.

Taylor, the salutatorian, came to Pillow in seventh grade after completing her education at  Bankston Elementary School. She is graduating with a 4.633 GPA or 97.07 percent.

Next year, she will attend the University of Mississippi and plans to major in biology, with her sights set on a career in optometry or ophthalmology.

She most enjoyed biology and English at Pillow and was particularly inspired by a teacher who was working toward her master’s degree, taking online classes, while teaching creative writing full time.

Taylor said her parents, Amy and David Taylor, pushed her toward success. Maggie said a competition  among herself and a couple of other students also kept her motivated to achieve.

She played tennis all six years at Pillow and recently won a first state championship in No. 1 girls singles. She participated in Crown Club, Astra, Spanish Club, Quiz Bowl, the Honor Society and Mu Alpha Theta.

At graduation on Friday, she will talk about the past and “how Pillow grew us and invested in us.”

Her advice to younger students coming up is to study and do homework steadily and regularly. “It isn’t fun, but it pays off,” she said.

Both McKibben and Taylor say they’re excited about attending large state universities, a distinct change from the intimacy of  Pillow.

Taylor said she enjoyed the closeness of Pillow, though.

“It was all very personal,” she said. “The teachers know us all, and everybody is your friend.”

Contact Kathryn Eastburn at 581-7235 or keastburn@gwcommonwealth.com.

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