BKW grads learn the meaning of R-E-S-P-E-C-T

The Enterprise — Michael Koff
Fare thee well: A Berne-Knox-Westerlo graduate waves to the crowd, while another dances. 

HILLTOWNS — Berne-Knox-Westerlo’s 2024 graduation ceremony was full of quotes — not from long-dead authors whose works are now seldom read — but from sources nearer speakers’ own lives as they imparted their well-earned wisdom to the graduating class at The Egg, in Albany. 

“I’m sure many of you know the comedian Kevin Hart,” board of education President Kimberly Lovell said near the top of her speech. “Many don’t think of him as a writer on motivational topics; however, I have found his books to be quite insightful.”

Of the “endless” advice he gives about topics like positivity, and controlling only what you can control, her favorite, she said is, “Happiness begins with you.” 

“Throughout your education, you have been encouraged to pursue excellence, to strive for success, to achieve, to conquer,” Lovell said. “As you begin the next chapter of your lives, I urge you not just to think about what you will do, but how you will feel doing it, because happiness should be your first priority.”

She said that happiness is at the center of everything, and that the “things that make you laugh, make you smile, and bring you joy” should be used as a compass as graduates “take risks and try new challenges.”

“At the end of the day, it all starts with you,” she said. “I would like to end by thanking you all for being such a great representation of our school over your years at BKW, but more specifically as our graduating Class of 2024.”


Dad’s advice

Superintendent Timothy Mundell, in his last speech for the district before his retirement, highlighted the various programs that students had taken advantage of during their time at the school before going on to share the lesson that his late father — an auto mechanic with an electrician’s license and plumbing experience — gave him when he was growing up.

“I remember as a child, my dad was up at 4 o’clock every morning,” he said. “He was a hard worker. He worked six days a week, every week of his life … He always said to me, ‘Tim, just remember, work hard every day. Just work hard, be honest with people and be straight with them, and treat people well. Everything that you face in life will be taken care of if you do those three things.’”

Calling life a marathon and not a sprint, Mundell said that what happens each day will have an impact, however far off, and that “if it’s a good thing, keep running with it; if it’s a challenge, overcome it.” 

“A friend of mine that I worked with on Long Island used to say, ‘Hey Mundell, that challenge? It’s just an opportunity in disguise. See that opportunity,’” he said. “When you have that growth mindset, you see in every situation the opportunity that next exists, then you make your plan. Dream big. Push the envelope.” 

Turning his attention to the family and friends in the audience, Mundell thanked them — along with the board of education members and district staff and faculty — for their support over his nine years as superintendent as the district drastically updated itself. 

“It has truly, truly been my pleasure to work and to serve in this community,” Mundell said. “It is a special little place on the top of the Hill. We are the BKW that can do whatever we put our mind to, and these graduates of 2024 exemplify that.”


“True legacy”

High school principal and former English teacher Bonnie Kane, who is taking over as superintendent, told the audience that she often advised students to “read constantly and take what they love about the style of what they read and incorporate it into their own writing” to reach “the best possible creation.” 

“This can also be done when deciding who you want to be,” she said. “Take the traits you admire from others and incorporate those into your daily work, attitude, and beliefs to be the best version of yourself.” 

Kane said that the class could take inspiration from their loved ones, who supported them throughout their lives. Listing the kinds of mentors a student might have, she said, “I hope you can think of a thousand more examples as you take off into this next chapter in your lives. Who you are is truly what you produce in this world. That is the true legacy you will leave behind.” 


“Constant change”

Salutatorian Katie Joslin told the audience in their speech that their father, an accountant, begins every budget he does with a grounding quote, and so began their speech with one of their own: “The only thing constant is change.” 

“As anyone who knows me can inform you, I adore musicals to an obsessive extent, and this quote originates from my favorite one, ‘Jekyll and Hyde,’ being said by Dr. Henry Jekyll before he undergoes his transformation into Hyde,” Joslin said. “While his intent in saying it is to underline the idea of the scientific world constantly changing … I believe that it finds a fairly fitting place here today as we graduate.”

They said that the graduates have grown together and witnessed each other change, knowing that at some point they would all take their own paths. 

“None of us are the same people that walked through those doors so many years ago, and it is unlikely we will still be the same people we are today,” they said. 

The COVID-19 pandemic had highlighted the importance of connection, Joslin said, helping them to balance what they described as an obsessiveness around school work. That connection will help all the graduates as life continues to unfurl for them in unexpected ways, they said. 

“Change is hard in so many aspects, and as someone who hates change, I would know,” they said. “However, I feel confident in saying that, while being constant, change can be positive, and it’s something that the students here before you will be able to conquer.”


“Open up”

Valedictorian Jodie Howland also highlighted the importance of connection, saying that her friends and family gave her the courage to strive and achieve as much as she has. 

Acknowledging that she was “terrified” to be standing on stage at that moment, she was equipped “with the knowledge that I have people looking out for me, who believe that I can do it.”

“When I first became friends with the people I’m close with today, I was shy and timid, barely speaking to any of them,” Howland said. “But gradually I began to open up. They were so kind and confident in themselves, that I didn’t feel afraid to be myself.” 

She said that the graduating class “all made so many wonderful memories throughout the years” and that she “can’t wait to see what we all do in the future.” 


“A bright light”

Senior class president Mackenzie Lawrence announced Teacher of the Year Audra Bouleris, describing her as “a bright light in our district, with a contagious laugh and competitive nature” whose “flexibility and understanding to all is admirable.”

In her brief thank you, Bouleris, who is retiring after 33 years with the district, said that she could “not say enough about this class,” and called the school home.



Antonina Lefkaditis, the class vice president, introduced commencement speaker Jim Lemire, a social studies teacher at the school. 

Describing how, when teaching economics, he helped the students invest virtual money in the stock market, Lefkaditis said that it was confusing when soon afterward he led the class on a field trip to Coxsackie County Correctional Facility — “sparking fears of embezzlement, of course. If that’s not sending mixed signals, I don’t know what is.” 

At the podium, Lemire said that the rule at the foundation of his classrooms is respect — and played the song “Respect” from his phone, before going on to break down how the class embodies that word, letter by letter. 

“The R in Respect stands for rights,” he said. “I’ve often said that my political vantage point is summed up in four words: The Bill of Rights. When we consider that sacred document, we know that there are many rights therein that we very much want applied to ourselves … But we must also take care to remember that the rights we want for ourselves must be enjoyed by everyone, no matter how similar or different they are from us.”

Lemire said that he’s witnessed the class of 2024 stand up for students being picked on and speak out against wider injustices in an organized, productive way — fulfilling that first component of the word. 

“The E is for excellence,” he said. “How could anyone misstate the obvious about this class? There is so much excellence here. I can’t list them all by name within the confines of one speech, but in the class of 2024 we have top-notch artists, so many who have helped to resurrect the school musical, not to mention [Future Farmers of America] state champs, plus accomplished and NYSSMA-decorated musicians, esports champs, scholars in every imaginable field, from the many tech, vocational, and ag offerings at BKW, to the sciences, humanities, and, of course, social studies.”

After listing even more areas of accomplishment, Lemire said, “Grads, I admire and respect all of you. Whether you received any of these honors or you just barely made it to the finish line, you deserve our congrats.”

The S in respect stands for selflessness, he went on, recalling the many hours of community service that class members have logged, both in and out of school.

They “volunteered their time to sweep and mop at a barbershop, run concession stands on school grounds and elsewhere, prepare food for fundraisers and other events,” he said. “Others trained to be volunteer firefighters, volunteered within elementary and secondary classrooms, tend to the home care of the elderly or infirm … provided rides to those in need to get to and from their job, made Christmas stockings for American GIs stationed around the world, and provided considerable time in both school and public libraries.”

“The P is for peaceful,” Lemire went on. “I’ve become very familiar with the term ‘social-media warrior’ over the last several years. I urge you to see beyond the immediate need to do battle with others over issues which rise to the level of drama only. Drama cannot serve you. Negativity wounds you, and hate is baggage that will just drag you down.” 

Quoting his childhood hero, the basketball legend Julius Erving, known as Dr. J, Lemire said, “‘I firmly believe that respect is a lot more important, and a lot greater than popularity.’ Life isn’t about likes, laughing emojis, or views. It’s about the way you treat others in your world.” 

The second E in respect, he said, stands for education. 

“You have received quite an education over the last 13 years,” he said. “Not just what you learned, but how you went about doing it. When you entered kindergarten, none of you — or any of us — could have known that things like pandemic, hybrid instruction, social media, social distancing, hand sanitizer, remote learning with Google Meet would be a part of getting here — and yet, here you are. 

“You overcame every obstacle, and you have received a fantastic [academic] education — my respected colleagues have made sure of that — but you have received a fantastic real-life education also… ,” he said. “Wherever you go, whatever you study, you have been prepared well for it, but your learning journey has just begun. Please respect that process and see where it takes you.”

The C stands for cool, Lemire said. “I mean, just look at them. Do I really need to say anything else? They’ve already mastered cool.”

“Actually, although you are very, very cool, what I mean is to remain cool and calm in the face of stress,” he said. “Stress, strain, disappointment — these are inevitable in life. In fact, in this discussion of respect, it’s important to note that you will be disrespected in your lifetime numerous times, whether that’s by a family member, a boss, a colleague, an employee, or someone you don’t even know, what you do when faced with these difficulties will be the measure of who you truly are, and the level of respect you will receive in return.”

Finally, the T, Lemire said, stands for “take it into the world. Class of 2024, you are wonderfully gifted, talented, giving people. Please don’t keep those gifts and talents to yourself. The world needs you. Please do not hide your light under a basket. 

“My awesome 12-year-old grandson, Samuel, loves to say to me, ‘Ah, there’s no hope for this generation,’ which he says ironically because he’s talking about his own generation, and he knows that I always laugh when he says that, but I’m not really sure where he gets that from, and the truth of the matter is I don’t agree with him. There is hope for this, and succeeding, generations, and that hope is you.

“My generation — well, let’s just say that the members of this class have referred to me as old, ancient, over the hill, past due, and so on about 30,000 times in the last few years. The writing’s been on the wall for me for a while now. I’ve had a good run but … the world is going to need someone to step up and lead. I can’t trust my grandson’s future to just anyone. I choose you.” 

In the end, Lemire connected respect with the concept of love, quoting the spiritualist Don Miguel Ruiz, who said that “respect is one of the greatest expressions of love.” 

Referring back to the song with which he opened his speech, and how he debated performing it, Lemire said, “I’m not going to sing to you because I respect you. I respect you, and I love you guys … Please make it a safe, happy, and respectful world for my grandson and the generations to come.” 

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