‘Don’t be a giraffe’: BKW graduating class told to look ahead with courage

The Enterprise — Michael Koff
Berne-Knox-Westerlo Secondary School Principal gives his final speech to graduates before his retirement this summer.

HILLTOWNS — It was a good day for the Berne-Knox-Westerlo class of 2022, but for giraffes, not so much. 

At the Egg in Albany, on June 25, BKW Secondary School Principal Mark Pitterson addressed those gawky, gangling creatures (the giraffes), explaining to parents, faculty, and the dozens of soon-to-be graduates that giraffes live their lives in such fear of water that they can be kept in a zoo without walls, so long as there’s a shallow moat that encircles them. 

Don’t be a giraffe, he urged the students.

It was Pitterson’s last address to graduates; he is retiring after six years at BKW.

“They have no clue how deep the water is,” Pitterson said. “Their fear is that it is too deep and that they’ll step in there and break a leg or something, so they do not step in that water … So my message to you, when I say not to be a giraffe, is simply this: As you leave BKW, you have the entire world out there at your disposal. You have hundreds of opportunities. Do not — I repeat, do not — be paralyzed by fear.”

It’s a tall order for the class, whose children will no doubt be quizzed one day on all that’s gone on these past few years, and even days. But the faculty and administration of BKW aren’t fretting for them.

“As I thought about words of wisdom I can impart on you this morning, I realized that nothing I could say would be more impactful than what you’ve already demonstrated,” Board of Education President Matthew Tedeschi told them. “Because each one of you have succeeded — dare I say thrived — amid challenging times … The challenges that you’ve experienced the past couple of years have, in fact, become your biggest advantage. Take all that you’ve overcome and use it to be determined, persistent, and unstoppable, and design the future of your dreams. 

“And as you begin to navigate back to normal,” he went on, “just know that you don’t have to be. In the words of Maya Angelou, ‘If you’re always trying to be normal, you will never know how amazing you can be.’”

Superintendent Timothy Mundell highlighted the various colleges that the graduates are heading off to — Siena College, the University of Wyoming, the University of Pennsylvania, and Brigham Young University, among others — and how the programming at BKW sharpened their minds in preparation for the next phase of their lives, whether it be college, trade school, the work force, or the military. 

And throughout that schooling, he said, “You’ve all demonstrated your grit, your adaptability, and your flexibility. As you go forward, remember to keep focusing on the self. Remember that your internal reflection and your attention to continuing to grow, to become more intellectual … to become more determined, more contributing, is what you are inside, and that reflects your character. And character is who you are when no one’s looking. Keep working on the self throughout the rest of your life. It will pay dividends.”


“We’ve overcome”

Salutatorian Kimberly Howland, in a touching speech, took time to acknowledge the personal nature of each graduate’s path to the stage, and the obstacles they faced. 

“There have been changes [in us] that everyone knows and has been a part of,” she said. “There were changes that only friends and families will know. There’s been changes that only ourselves will know. We’ve had our ups and downs; good times and bad times. We’ve had days that were way too mundane, and days so odd and unusual that we couldn’t help but laugh at them. We’ve had days we’ll remember for the rest of our lives, and days we’re already trying to forget about.

“We’ve overcome so many challenges and obstacles that led us to where we are today,” she said. “We’ve faced academic challenges, of classes, grades, big projects, presentations, motivation, study habits, time management. We’ve faced health and mental health challenges: illness, loss, anxiety, depression, bullying, self-doubt, self-deprecation, communication problems … We put ourselves out there for 13 years, set goals and achieved them, made connections, tried new things, jumped into the unknown, allowed ourselves to fail and try again.”

She closed with a quote from the district’s alma mater: “May glorious be your future, as in the years now past. Going onward, ever onward, Berne-Knox to the last.”


“A long ride”

Speaking after Howland, valedictorian Paul Larrabee wittily compared the class’s time at BKW to being on a school bus, with graduation the last stop on their run. 

“It brought us to see many sights,” he said, “make significant relationships, and maybe even helped us learn a thing or two. At least I hope so. It has been quite a long ride, after all, from Kindergarten Street to Senior Boulevard.  Yet now it’s the end of the line. We’re stepping off from the big brick bus, and we have to go forge our own paths. We have to apply what we’ve learned from our teachers, our classmates, our parents, our family … Everyone has to get off, but I have a great deal of faith that everyone sitting up here today is going to find the right path and have a great time doing it. Thank you for coming to my TED talk.”


Teacher of the Year

Larrabee then threw to Stavros Lefkaditis, the breezily funny class president, who introduced the Teacher of the Year, Kevin Whitfield.

“I think I speak on behalf of the class of 2022, even the school as a whole, when I say that [Whitfield] is one of the best teachers that we’ve ever had. And this isn’t because of his actual teaching ability, which is, as he would say, adequate at best. In middle school, this teacher would … put notes on the board and have us shut up and write, all class long and every day, leaving us with countless hand cramps. 

“What actually makes him such a good teacher is his ability to reach out and connect with students both in and out of the classroom,” Lefkaditis said. “When I say that you might picture a teacher that would hold kids’ hands and help them get through the hard times and tell them it will all be OK, when in reality it’s the exact opposite. 

“This teacher is known for singling out students and making fun of them,” he said. “As weird as it sounds, that’s how he included students, by excluding them, in that he singled out everybody — a sort of inclusion by collective exclusion, or as he would call it, disliking us all equally. He’s also known for practicing tough love and treating us like adults, and in doing so he’s prepared us for life more than any other teacher and administrator. 

“There isn’t enough to say about this teacher, but I promised to keep it brief, so I’ll note this: This is the man with the best beard that BKW’s ever seen, his max squat is about a million pounds, a D1 hockey player at UAlbany, he’s a Rangers fan but hey, nobody’s perfect, your teacher of the year and overall badass Mr. Kevin Whitfield.” 

After taking the stage, Whitfield expressed his gratitude for being selected for the award. 

“Words can’t describe how incredibly grateful I am to be honored this year,” he said. “You guys are my first true class. At first, you guys knew me as a probably-miserable hall monitor, an authoritarian in the lunchroom, and then you guys were given — I wouldn’t necessarily call it a gift — you were given kind of a challenge. Thank you. I will miss you all so much. My door is always open to any and every one of you. 

“Please come back and visit, probably in 30 years when I’m still here, hopefully having your children in my class,” he went on. “Continue to do great things, continue to impress people, and always know I dislike all of you equally and immensely.”


“Face your fears”

Class Vice President Zoey Lounsbury then (without a speech — “Sorry, but you’re welcome also,” she said) introduced commencement speaker Gary Morin, a teacher and coach with the district. 

“Was that some heartfelt stuff from Kevin Whitfield? I’m not even sure what to do right now,” he joked. “... One of my primary goals was to not turn this into one of my basketball speeches so I had to cut out a bunch of stuff. I appreciate that everybody else mentioned the stuff that really needed to be said, especially recognizing the parents and the family and everybody in the stands tonight, we really thank you for everything. With that, I would also like to start by thanking and again congratulating the BKW class of 2022.”

To prepare for his speech, he said, “I started looking at what’s considered to be the best commencement speech given. It was kind of funny, it was given by a billionaire named Robert Smith, who did an unbelievable gesture to all the students in the stands at Morehouse College. He ended his speech with the fact that he was going to utilize his resources to pay off the student loans for everybody in that graduating class so they can enter the world with no debt whatsoever.

“That’s obviously an unbelievable gesture, and obviously now I’m taking inspiration from the number two speech that I found,” he said.

Morin circled back to what Pitterson said about fear being paralyzing, and used his own experiences to drive the point home. 

“Fear honestly held me back from a lot of things in my younger days,” he said. “It held me back from going to college initially, held me back from striving to advance my career. It actually took me a long time to realize that failing is OK … And I do still face it, and see fear and feel fear, of course — I mean we all do, it never really goes away — but by failing, succeeding, failing, succeeding, I really started to learn some of the things that I was capable of doing. 

“That’s a really great way to approach that,” he said, “which is what I implore you guys to do here today. I really want you to work to understand and face your fears as they come. I want you to understand that you can succeed in a particular venture, but even if you do fail, you’ll still learn something, which is a really, really powerful thing.”

In closing, he said, “self-assess, be able to look in the mirror and understand why things happen the way that they happen and learn from failure and be able to move forward. And with that, it is my absolute honor and privilege to issue my most heartfelt appreciation and congratulations to you all … Congratulations.”

More Hilltowns News

The Altamont Enterprise is focused on hyper-local, high-quality journalism. We produce free election guides, curate readers' opinion pieces, and engage with important local issues. Subscriptions open full access to our work and make it possible.