In family’s shadow, BKW valedictorian shines

The Enterprise — Michael Koff

Marcy Forti speaks about her Berne-Knox-Westerlo community at her June 23 commencement.

BERNE — Berne-Knox-Westerlo valedictorian Marcy Forti has followed a family tradition of community service while blazing her own path.

Her mother, the late Jean Forti, was a Hilltown icon, involved in many activities both with the school and the town of Knox. Marcy recalls many of these activities — she usually was right beside her. When her mother helped out with the school’s science fair, so did Marcy; when she volunteered at the Knox Food Pantry, Marcy would be stocking shelves.

Jean Forti died of cancer three years ago, shortly before her daughter started her sophomore year of high school. A 5K race and scholarship have been established in her name.

“She had this social ability that was kind of crazy,” said Marcy, who has grown accustomed to people knowing her as “Jean Forti’s daughter.”

Marcy Forti, who is 18, is also following in the footsteps of her older sister, Katie, and brother, Adam, both valedictorians in their graduating classes of 2011 and 2013, respectively.

“My siblings were academic overachievers,” said Forti. She said that this raised expectations for herself, which is a challenge she appreciates. Sometimes, as it may happen in a small school, a teacher referred to her by a sibling’s name.

“We just kind of respond to it at this point,” she said.

Forti will be attending her brother’s alma mater, Union College, majoring in biochemistry.

But despite all those who came before her, Forti is blazing her own path, and has been for some time.

Her chosen major was inspired both by her love of animals and her father’s work at the state’s Department of Health, where he monitored levels of mercury in fish.

“Whenever he came home, he would talk about it,” she said.

Growing up, she also was often caring for or working with animals. She currently has a dog and a cat, as well as chickens and ducks. She previously took care of baby goats, and rides horses at her neighbor’s farm. When she was 12 or 13, she found a baby pigeon while out riding, and raised it.

“None of my friends like that part of my life,” Forti said.

The bird would fly about and sit on her shoulder, or sometimes watch television from the back of the couch. The pigeon was allowed outside, and continued to return home for about a year before it didn’t come back, but Forti believes it may have found a new home in a nearby barn.

“For a while, I wanted to be a veterinarian,” she said. “I feel like every little girl says that, but I really wanted to be a vet.”

Forti says she may still become a veterinarian, should she not find a career she wants to pursue in biochemistry. She’s considering some sort of research, either in the laboratory or out in the field. One topic of interest to her is immunology, after she was diagnosed two years ago with Celiac disease, an autoimmune disease in which the body rejects gluten and “attacks itself,” she said. Autoimmune disorders, she said, are not completely understood yet.

“They just don’t fully understand why it happens to certain people,” she said.

Forti acknowledges that, in her chosen field, she may have to experiment on animals, which is a tough call that she has had to come to terms with. But she notes that testing on one animal could help many people, or even other animals.

“So many animals you wouldn’t be able to help,” she added.

Union College was not Forti’s first choice. She originally wanted to go to school in California, and then narrowed it down to Boston.

“Now I’m going half an hour from my house,” she said.

But she visited Union College, both when her brother attended and recently, and appreciates the small class sizes.

Part of the reason Forti had eyed faraway places for college was because she has lived at her home in Knox her whole life, and knows each member of her entire class of 78 students.

“I feel like there is so much left to discover,” she said. But she admits, “It will be a change, it will be a challenge, no matter where I go.”

She hopes that, while at school, she will still get to travel to new places, such as through a study-abroad program to places like Barcelona, in order to practice her Spanish and challenge herself to speak it all the time.

In fact, Forti says she is looking forward to all sorts of academic challenges at school.

“As nerdy as that sounds,” she said.

But she notes that she has grown up in a great community. She knows not only all of her classmates, but teachers from as far back as elementary school remember her, even running into her on trips to the grocery store.

“And we can just talk for 10 minutes and catch up,” she said.

At BKW, Forti’s activities include music — the school play, band, and chamber singers — and sports — cheerleading and varsity soccer — and leadership — National Honors Society, student senate, and the student senate society. She made it to the final round of the quiz-bowl style competition Masterminds while still having fun with her teammates, and is also one of the founding members of her school’s peer-mediation program and BKW’s Gender and Sexuality Alliance club, or GSA.

Forti helped found GSA after someone she knew came out as a lesbian. She hopes that this club will help lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender students feel more accepted at BKW.

“Berne-Knox is a small school in a rural area which has a lot to learn regarding bullying and LGBTQ people … ,” she said. Her friend “is definitely not the only person who’s LGBT at Berne, but there’s definitely not a lot of support for them,” she said.

Seniors started the club this year, and Forti is grateful younger students have joined.

GSA members made ribbons to show support, listed statistics about LGBTQ people on school announcements, and wrote letters on issues such as a Catholic bishop refusing to offer Christian funeral rites to LGBT people. Most responses to the group were positive, Forti said.

“Of course there’s some negative comments, but that’s to be expected … ,” she said. “A lot of the teachers told us they were glad this started … .”

Forti has observed many of her teachers offering support at BKW, from her social studies teacher James Lemire driving an hour to come in early for test preparation, to a teacher offering support after her mother’s death. She and her classmates have also offered support to one another; in place of a senior prank, the class held a luau-style fundraiser to help one of its members undergoing treatments for cancer.

“We all just dressed up like dads at a barbeque … ,” said Marcy. “This year has been great; we all got a lot closer as a grade.”