BKW grads remember the past and look to the future

BERNE — From honoring parents and community to displaying embarrassing baby pictures, Berne-Knox-Westerlo’s graduates were reminded to never forget where they came from at their June 23 commencement ceremony.

The ceremony at The Egg in Albany opened with a display of students’ baby pictures next to their senior pictures, shown to the tunes of pop and country songs, with several crossing the line between adorable and painfully embarrassing. The first speaker, secondary-school Principal Mark Pitterson, kept students’ roots in mind as well, as he had parents and guardians stand up in the audience for the students to applaud.

“Every decision you make as a parent has a potential minefield behind it,” Pitterson said, adding that parenthood is “almost like serving a prison sentence.” He added that the parents in the audience had “done a tremendous job.”

The BKW community, and the students’ sense of community, was center stage as well. School board President Matthew Tedeschi noted this in his speech when he described a “senior prank” to raise money to help Amy Wideman, a classmate with cancer. Tedeschi called it “the classiest and most creative stunt I have ever seen.”

The keynote speaker, BKW social studies teacher James Lemire, had similar thoughts about the “prank.”

“Amy, we all are here for you, and your classmates showed it,” he said.

Lemire seemed to be a shoo-in as for speaker, judging by the way his students have spoken of him.

“I like that he really loves teaching,” said salutatorian Cailyn Toomey, who aspires to be a teacher herself. Valedictorian Marcy Forti described how Lemire would come in early to help students study, and buy food for students who need it on trips.

“He’s the nicest … ,” said Forti. “He is just the most loving teacher … He will do anything for any of our students.”

Lemire was likewise in awe of his students.

“There’s no speech that I or any of you could give that would live up to this class,” he began. “You all are amazing.”

Lemire was meticulous in praising each of the students, commending athletes, artists, musicians, and military recruits. He asked students in either the student service society or the Gender and Sexuality Alliance to stand up, describing how they have served the community and their school, and commended Travis Jackson and Charles Boone for their upcoming military service that would allow him to “continue to teach about a county I love.”

Lemire left the Class of 2018 with a word of advice: Live by how things should be, and make what you want changed happen.

“You have to try, even if you fail … ,” he said. “And know that you’re not alone.”

The class presented the Teacher of the Year Award to chemistry teacher Brian McCoy, who seemed astounded and humbled by the honor.

“Thanks, guys,” he said. “I honestly did not expect this, this morning.”

BKW Superintendent Timothy Mundell recalled that the students had already made a difference. When he started as school superintendent in 2015, he spoke with class officers. It was the class of 2018 that sought practical objectives: ice for athletes after school, food for students in need, and more classes because there were many seniors with a large amount of study-hall time.

Top scholars praise community

Salutatorian Cailyn Toomey offered two confessions to her classmates and others at the graduation ceremony. The first, she hadn’t wanted to attend BKW her freshman year of high school, a small-town school that she later remarked people have disparagingly nicknamed “Burger King Workers,” and that she worried wouldn’t offer her many opportunities.

Her second confession:

“I couldn’t be more wrong,” she said.

She named a number of opportunities the school has given its students, and how they have succeeded at them: the BKW band came in second in a Florida competition, and the Future Farmers of America placed first in a state competition. She noted that Advanced Placement, or college-level, classes as well as vocational programs have given students opportunities from graduating from college a year early to entering the workforce ready for the job.

Her school also offered something else.

“When I think of Berne-Knox-Westerlo, the first thing that comes to mind is community,” she said.

She described activities such as preparing dinners for seniors, hosting blood drives, and the class’s senior “prank”: raising money for a sick classmate.

Toomey also recalled moments that have brought the BKW class together: coming in on Mondays to teachers dancing to ’80s music and playing Uno in the student lounge.

“I don’t know how I’m going to follow that,” remarked valedictorian Marcy Forti, as she approached the lectern after her classmate’s speech.

She added that she had felt similarly lost for words when writing her own speech.

“How do you condense 13-plus years of memories into a few minutes?”

Forti said she had searched for a quote to sum up the experience, but they all sounded clichéd. She said she then stumbled upon the South African philosophy of Ubuntu, which is characterized by the phrase: “I am because you are.”

“This South African quote sums up who we are at BKW,” said Forti. Ubuntu, or humanity, is the philosophy that humans need connections to a community, that they cannot exist alone. Forti thanked the community for supporting the graduates — from the older and younger siblings, to the parents, grandparents, and other extended family members.

“We literally and figuratively could not have made it here without your tireless support,” she said.

She also thanked teachers, for their support, advice, and letters of recommendation that helped students move up.

“You have made the school so much more than a building,” she said.

Forti finally addressed her classmates, and recalled memories the graduating class had made together, giving a nod to the “infamous shark vs. bear debate,” (the shark would win, she insisted), and spending time in the student lounge.

“And what we will call, ‘the table-smashing incident,’” she said. “I love you guys.”

She also asked her classmates to think of what they could be.

“We really are a smart group, we have always had each others’ backs, and I know everyone has a bright future … ,” she said. “And we will never forget where we came from.”