Joe Weaver decided a year ago to run for student body office at Senior High.
The year before that, he had run for junior class president and lost to his friend J.J. Carroll. But Joe liked the idea of being involved, of finding ways to work for the school on a more meaningful level.
So last year he decided to run again, this time for student body vice president. Carroll was running for student body president, and together the two won the election and prepared to take office that fall.
Joe, leaving school for summer break, was prepared to take Senior High by storm his senior year.
And then in late June, Joe and his family learned that his older sister Melissa, 23, died in plane crash in the Western Montana wilderness while on a sightseeing trip with friends.
"Being back here seemed so surreal," he said. "I kept thinking, 'Why is the world still going on?' The first couple months was really hard."
Before school started, he found himself spending all kinds of time thinking about how much he could really handle.
"I considered resigning last August," he said. "School is going to be enough. How can I take on these extra responsibilities?"
And then he sat down and had a long talk with his dad.
When Joe's father was 13, he lost his sister, and as he and Joe sat and talked all summer, they found themselves bonding in an unexpected way.
He told Joe to keep busy and keep a sharp focus on what was important.
"I couldn't let it defeat me," Joe said.
And so, returning to school last August, he kept his student body position, became vice president of the school's chapter of the National Honor Society and maintained his ranking as one of the school's best tennis players.
"It made me enjoy life more, in a weird way," he said.
His principal, Dennis Holmes, said the experience changed Joe in ways neither anticipated.
"When he came back last fall, you could see how heavy his heart was," Holmes said.
But his determination to face the challenges presented by his sister's death and remain invested in his studies and the school made him a better person.
"Joe, in my opinion, is a model student," Holmes said. "He became a better person this year. (The experience) has made him a more giving person."
Following graduation, Joe will start school this fall at Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, N.C. He's considering a law or business degree.
What he ends up doing as a profession will depend on who he is, he said.
"I don't know who I want to be as a person," he said. "I guess I'll figure it out."
Regardless, he's eager to get on with whatever is next in his life.
"I'll be glad to leave Billings -- just for a while," he said. "I love Billings, don't get me wrong."
But he wants to take off for a while, explore the world a bit and see what life beyond Montana has to offer.
"I'm really excited to go live my life," he said.