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Hilltown Archives — The Altamont Enterprise, July 9, 2009

BKW grads recall shared past, march ahead

By Zach Simeone

BERNE — “Students, friends of students, parents, friends of parents, siblings, aunts, uncles, family friends, friends of family friends — welcome to the 75th Berne-Knox-Westerlo High School gradation.” Class President Joseph Shahen had all bases covered when he kicked off his speech to the closely-knit BKW community on June 27, just after a brief moment of silence for the late Michael Jackson.

But before any of that could happen, there were thanks given, songs sung, and a chance for the graduating class to reminisce.

At 10:30 a.m., the graduates began filing in around the top of the theater to a slow clap from the audience, the kind sometimes heard at sporting events as the home team makes its entrance. The school band was seated in front of the stage, while Superintendent Steven Schrade and BKW School Board President Helen Lounsbury stood at the podium. Lounsbury thanked Schrade for his 19 years of service to BKW, in light of his impending retirement.

The audience’s attention was then directed to a large monitor above the stage for a video presentation that summarized this academic year with a slideshow of photos of the graduating class.

The video began with a clip from the opening sequence of Star Trek: The Next Generation, while a student’s voiceover declared that the makers of the video would “boldly go where no senior slideshow has gone before,” a parody of the TV show’s popular catchphrase.

Some of the photos were candid, while others were posed. Some were taken in class, some in the halls. Highlights from sporting events were accompanied by highlights from the students’ childhoods. Baby pictures and senior portraits were followed by cheers and “woos” from the BKW family.

The photos were set to pop songs from recent history, like “Sexy Back” by Justin Timberlake and “Jumpers” by Sleater-Kinney, along with slightly older hits, including “Move This” by Technotronic, “Ice Ice Baby” by Vanilla Ice, and “Don’t Stop Believing” by Journey.

Then, as the school band played “Pomp and Circumstance,” the graduates took the stage in pairs, meeting at the center and posing for photos. Some students had planned unique greetings for when they met at the center of the stage, including chest bumps, butt bumps, various poses, and special handshakes.

Seniors Justine Crevatas and Brienna Osterhout were then joined by the school band and most of the audience in singing “The Star Spangled Banner.”

Presidential address

Once the anthem concluded, Class President Joseph Shahen — or “Morning Joe,” as he was called for his morning announcements — took the stage for his presidential address.

“It has taken us 13 long years to make it to this point — more for some people, but, they made it here nevertheless,” Shahen said at the top of his speech. “As I look over at the group of students next to me, soon to officially graduate, I can honestly say I am honored to be part of such an entertaining and colorful class.”

He admitted that, while many encouraged him to make his speech funny, per his reputation, he was “almost at a loss for words about all this.” Time really seemed to fly by, he said.

He recalled being in kindergarten, playing Batman on the playground with Alyssa Wetterau, who spoke later as valedictorian, and their friend, Rebecca Villeneuve.

“For years, I tried to act like I didn’t remember that, like it never happened,” Shahen joked, “but, I remember, and it was awesome.”

The audience laughed, as they did through much of Shahen’s speech.

Shahen went on to pay his respects to the classmates who helped make his high-school career “complete.”

He recalled how he and Patrick Stanton “held it down” in first and second grade, as well as when Drew Rossback battled a giant spider in fourth grade, and the time in kindergarten when Rossback pushed him off the slide at the playground. “My nose gushed blood all over and I thought it was broken,” Shahen said.

He remembered when he and Rossback ate dirty gummies off the floor in sixth grade, too.

Shahen spoke then about another friend, Brian Chrysler, who will be joining the United States Marine Corps, and whom he called “one of the most colorful characters I’ve ever met,” and whom he thanked for being his “head of security.”

He also mentioned his friend Sean Loucks.

“Sean is one of the funniest and most awesome people I know, and he won’t hesitate to tell you that himself,” Shahen said. He told the audience of when Loucks messaged him in the middle of the night to tell him that he would one day be an “international butt kicker” — that bears, lions, and venomous snakes would be his victims, and that he is not afraid of anyone or anything.

“To this day, I have never questioned Sean as to why he told me this,” Shahen said, “and I don’t need to.”

He went on to describe a boxing match that took place in his basement between himself and his friend Christopher Pitt.

“You hit me in the ribs, and I thought my world was exploding,” said Shahen. “That is forever one of my proudest moments for the sheer fact that I didn’t black out,” he said.

The mention of Padriac Higgins’s name alone elicited laughter from the audience.

“What is there to say about this man that hasn’t already been said?” Shahen asked. “I will never forget that fateful day in eighth grade when you drank that nasty Gatorade.”

On to Charles Turner.

“To share the final year of my high-school career with a warrior like Charlie was an experience like no other,” said Shahen. “Thank you, Chuck, and remember that this is not an ending, but simply a beginning.”

Jeffrey Moller, Samantha Fusco, and Sean O’Connell were on the list as well, along with Matthew Montesano — “the artist of the legendary bathroom scorpion.” Its mention drew screams from the audience.

Shahen also thanked state pole-vaulting champion Joshua Glick, who encouraged him to join the cast of Grease this year, so Glick wouldn’t have to do it alone.

And then, “Billy.”

The crowd laughed.

“Words can not do you justice, no matter how — as you’d say — “Sacagawea” they are.”

The laughter grew.

“You are a one-man strike force, be it with a textbook, or a pen.”

A roar of laughter and applause followed this description of their friend, William LaBarr.

“If something ever gets out of line, I know you are the one to call,” Shahen said. “However, if I ever need a ride some place, I know you are not the one to call.”

Finally, he spoke about his friend David Sikule, co-salutatorian. While many will remember Sikule as the guy who scored 50 points in a basketball game, Shahen said, “Dave will forever be the giggling kid with food crumbs all over his face trying to make fun of me in the cafeteria…the guy with whom I have companion teddy bears, Albino Bear and Chocolate Bear — don’t ask.”

Shahen thanked his teachers, Principal Robert Drake, and Schrade, and added that, while he had said in the past that he had looked forward to leaving BKW, he is sad to be leaving. Shahen will attend the University at Albany this fall.

“It’s been real, Bulldogs,” Shahen concluded. “Good night, and good luck.”

Waving goodbye

It wasn’t long before co-salutatorian Denise Willsey approached the microphone, nervous and choked up.

“It’s no secret that I am not a public speaker,” Willsey began. “Some of you saw that firsthand in period-3 English last year when I almost passed out giving a presentation. I’m going to try really hard not to do that again, but I can’t make any promises.”

The crowd laughed as Willsey overcame her nervousness.

She went on to quote an essay called “Turning Points” that she wrote earlier this year in her creative writing class.

In the essay, she remembers waiting for the bus before her first day of kindergarten at BKW, lunch in hand, and her Hercules backpack strapped to her back.

“Climbing aboard that big yellow bus for the first time was one of the scariest things I had done in my short life,” she said in her essay. “It was worse than a shot from the doctor, and even the first trip down the slide at the park.”

She waved goodbye to her mom and her sister as the bus took her away from the only life she had ever known, she said.

“Now, I’m just like that scared kindergartner, preparing to climb aboard the bus for my first day of school all over again,” she said, “only this time, I’ll be waving goodbye to my childhood.”

While graduation is exciting, it’s scary, too, she said.

“We’re on the verge of beginning our adult lives, establishing our own goals and schedules, and making our own decisions,” she went on. “Some of us will be going to college in the fall; others, right into a full-time job. Some of us will continue living with our parents, while others will move out of our childhood homes to live somewhere completely new and different. Everything is our decision now.”

Graduation is a turning point — “a chance to change your life,” she said. “Will you take advantage of that?”

She went on to thank everyone in attendance, and then, her friends.

“You’ve supported my decisions — well, most of them — and given me advice,” said Willsey. “You’ve laughed with me, you’ve cried with me, but the best thing you’ve ever done is listen to me, and I know that hasn’t always been easy.”

She then thanked her family.

“Even when the rest of my life is in turmoil, my family stays the same,” Willsey said. “Things haven’t always been easy, but they always work out.”

She also thanked her teachers, as the inspiration for her going on to pursue a degree in education at The College of Saint Rose.

“Our time here is over, but we still have memories of each other, and our time at BKW,” Willsey concluded. “Hold on to these memories for the rest of your life.”

One last point

David Sikule took the stage next, with a bit more confidence than his fellow co-salutatorian, Willsey.

“Well, guys, we’ve now broken through the doors of BKW, and it’s time to go into the real world,” Sikule said. “It’s time to take a stab at the future.”

He reminded his classmates of graduation rehearsals, and how thankful he was that he wasn’t expected to practice his speech, because he hadn’t written it yet. His friend, Joseph Shahen, had one piece of advice: “Just say what the past 13 years have been to you.”

That’s just what he did.

“It was the school where we went on field trips to a peace-pole ceremony,” Sikule began. “It’s also the place where I met the DJs from Fly 92, and the place where I took my first standardized test. BKW is where we dropped our eggs out the window and hoped they wouldn’t break, and where we flew paper airplanes to demonstrate Bernoulli’s principal in the fifth grade. It’s where we rode scooters, raced through obstacle courses, and played with parachutes in gym class.”

It was also where he did not get recess in fifth grade.

“Yeah, we’re still mad about that,” he said. The audience and his classmates laughed some more.

It was in middle school at BKW that Sikule and his friends watched history teacher Robert Bentley’s Civil War demonstrations that were “sure to give the front row a shower of spit,” Sikule said. “That was disgusting.”

He will remember middle school as the transitional years, between being a child, and becoming a young adult.

“I have to say, my classmates up here were the best people to share those experiences with,” he said.

But, besides eighth grade, the best times of his life were in high school.

“High school is where the people up here defined themselves,” said Sikule. “The memories I have from the past four years are endless.”

High school was where he first got to choose his classes, and, more importantly, his path in life, he said. It was there that he met some of the most influential teachers and friends in his life.

Sikule talked about how Brian McCoy, his chemistry teacher and basketball coach, helped him grow into the player, and person, that he is today.

“And I’ll never forget, you saw Titanic twice in theaters,” he said to McCoy. Laughter and applause followed.

However, he had never met anyone more passionate about Star Wars and basketball than Coach Andrew Wright.

And, while he had Philip Matthews as an English teacher for only one year, watching him walk the halls with his “never-smile attitude” made him worthy of mention as well. Matthews once made Jeffrey Moller and him stay after class and write, “I will not throw objects in Mr. Matthews’s class,” 150 times, only to make them write it all over again because they spelled Matthews with one “T.”

“The people I’ve shared the past four years with will stay with me forever,” Sikule said.

He concluded his speech with a quote by the late Christopher Wallace, more commonly known as the rapper The Notorious B.I.G.: “Stay far from timid, only make moves if your heart’s in it, and live the phrase, ‘Sky’s the limit.’”

Doctor’s orders

“I have no idea how to sum up 13 years of being friends with these kids,” began valedictorian Alyssa Wetterau. “I’ve known them forever — my whole life, and there is no way I can find the words to express how much they all mean to me. But, I’m going to give it my best shot.”

She, like those before her, thanked the parents, teachers, and friends in the audience for their love and support, and congratulated those on stage with her.

She referenced Dr. Seuss’s last book, All the Places You’ll Go, which read, “Congratulations, today is your day. You’re off to great places. You’re off and away.”

“Everyone’s dreams are different,” Wetterau went on, “and the path that is right for one person might not be right for another.” She has high hopes for everyone, she said, and urged her classmates to make the most of the days ahead.

“Live, laugh, and have fun,” she said. “Don’t fear failure and disappointment.”

And, again quoting Dr. Seuss, she said, “Will you succeed? Yes, you will indeed. Ninety-eight-and-three-quarters-percent guaranteed. Kid, you’ll move mountains.”

But, she said, while moving mountains and making new friends and memories, don’t forget where you came from.

“It’s not easy to find such closeness among a class,” Wetterau said. “Even if time changes friendships or people, we are still tied by our memories, and the fun we’ve had together.”

She talked about the good times, mentioning, as Shahen had, playing Batman on the playground.

She thought of the times where things weren’t so good, “Like when the elaborate third-grade-kindergarten wedding of Andrew and Sarah was cancelled because Andrew decided to marry Kacey instead. Or when, in fifth grade, they took away our recess, and we were really mad, so we wrote up a petition, collected signatures, and they still didn’t give it back.”

Wetterau then mentioned a poster she had seen while in Berne recently, which read, “Everything I ever really needed to know, I learned in kindergarten.”

While thinking about these lessons — take turns on the swings, don’t jump ahead in the lunch line, share your crayons with your friends, she realized that these lessons are still important today, she said.

“In kindergarten, they teach you sharing, how to color in the lines, how to be a good friend, how to read and tie your shoes,” she said. “Well, we may need a little more than that these days, but it doesn’t take away from how important those lessons are.”

In high school, she said, kids learn how to think like individuals and become their own person.

“Sitting here on the stage today is a show of our mastery of these lessons,” she said of her classmates. “Parents, I know it’s hard, but we don’t need you to write our life story anymore. That’s up to us, to make our story worth reading.”

In closing, she said she hopes her friends will appreciate the little things in life.

“Take time to lie on your back in the grass and watch the stars come out,” she said. “Take time to get up early and watch a sunrise, or to dance in the rain. I hope you find joy in all that you do. Class of ’09, today is our day.”

A history lesson

As the student chorus sang renditions of “No Day But Today” and “Come Sail Away,” James Lemire, chair of BKW’s social studies department, was on deck.

Immediately after Principal Drake welcomed him to the stage, Lemire made his speech different than all those that came before his; he walked around to the front of the podium, turning his back to the audience, and spun the microphone around so he could face the graduating class while delivering his speech.

“Let’s see how this goes,” he said. Lemire apologized to the audience, who would be looking at his back throughout the rest of his speech. He said then that he would be using his time on stage to explain why the Class of 2009 was his favorite class, beginning with a bit of self-observation.

“I am fat,” he said. “I don’t mean hey-Lemire-looks-like-he’s-gained-some-weight fat. I mean hey-Lemire-looks-like-he-swallowed-a-helium-tank fat. I mean Lemire-has-more-pounds-than-the-treasury-of-Great-Britain fat.”

And yet, he said, he has never had a class that was so attracted to him. He realized that this may sound wrong to school board members and parents, but asked that they bear with him.

“Ethan Crevatas seemed to draw his life force from touching my left shoulder daily,” he said. “And that was a good thing, too, because one day, playing hoops during open gym, the simple act of ‘Lemire the rotund rebounder’ boxing out left Ethan gasping for his life force.”

Charles Turner liked to tell Lemire how cute he was, and Joseph Shahen often agreed. The two once came close to doing battle over who would get to take him to prom, Lemire said.

“Now that I think about it, that explanation doesn’t make it look much better,” he admitted. The crowd expressed its satisfaction with echoing laughter.

He recalled teaching some members of this class for two years, and hoped they remembered all he had taught them through the years, like the fact that neural transmission in the brain is just like eating chocolate, and that “gerrymandering” is choice f.) Really stupid.

He also coached eight members of this class during his two years as varsity softball coach.

Lemire made note of the fact that more than a dozen of these kids gave their time to hospice patients and soldiers who served in Iraq, while also working with programs that donated school supplies, eyewear, and food — “Humanitarian efforts I was privileged to be a part of with them,” he said.

He then announced that Tomi-Lee Marie Springer and Lacey Diane Yakel were recruited to play volleyball at the State University of New York at Cobleskill.

When the 2008-09 academic year started, he couldn’t believe how bright this class was, he said.

“They learned from me, but, more importantly, they learned from each other, and I learned from them,” Lemire said.

He expressed his pride in the athletic accomplishments of this class, including David Sikule’s 50-point game, and Joshua Glick’s state championship, as well as the artistic success of Grease.

The defining characteristic of these students, Lemire said, is that they really like each other.

“They cried with one another, and for one another, and they consoled and comforted each other, all the while cranking our rarely-before-seen academic excellence,” Lemire said.

Each student, he said, was touched by unfathomable grief this year. He mentioned no specific incidents, though two BKW students — Ryan Slingerland and James Wyatt Spencer — were both killed in tragic accidents this year.

“While the members of the class of ’09 could not provide each other all the answers, they could, and did, provide comfort and care, and they did so with an air of compassion that was most needed,” Lemire said. “I really doubt this could be replicated anywhere else.”

Likewise, this class was Lemire’s support system during these tragedies, he said.

“You see, that is why I love the class of 2009 so much,” he said. “This class feels.”

Dramatic exit

Coriellen Travis, the music teacher who directed a handful of the graduates in Grease this year, acted lost as she walked on stage, costumed in a feather boa and sunglasses, to blaring theme music.

“This is not the theater academy’s graduation is it? My bad,” she said. After a bit of searching for her speech on stage, and finding it, Shahen held up an “applause” sign, and the audience complied. This, along with a “laugh” sign, was used more than once throughout her speech.

Travis recalled her first day teaching at BKW, in a class that was composed of students from this graduating class, pre-high school. It was on this day that “one of the fine gentlemen” in this class had hopped out the window, and began hurling snowballs into the classroom. She never wanted to come back, she said, but she is glad she did.

That said, Travis provided the graduates with a few pieces of advice.

“Do what you love, even if you don’t love it every day,” she said. “Find that fire in your belly, without all the heartburn.”

Travis called Charles Turner up from his seat on stage. He found a guitar, and began finger-picking his way through “Dust in the Wind” by Kansas. Travis started singing the actual lyrics, only to stop halfway through, concluding that this was not an appropriate song for graduation.

She then began singing her own lyrics to the same melody, coaxing a great deal of laughter from the audience, and ending with a final message to the graduating class: “You’re so much more than dust in the wind.”

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