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Hilltowns Archives —The Altamont Enterprise, July 5, 2007

BKW Graduation

By Tyler Schuling

ALBANY — The Berne-Knox-Westerlo Class of 2007 was together one last time on June 23 at The Egg in Albany.

Before descending the auditorium’s stairs to take their places on the stage, the graduates stood atop the balcony, cheering as a projector flashed images of them on a large screen.

The graduating seniors were lauded by BKW’s principal, Mary Petrilli, and high school social studies teacher Robert Bentley as "the best class."

Arriving at center stage in pairs from either side of the stage, graduates shook hands and hugged. More courageous ones jumped into one another’s arms. Some simply walked toward one another, posed for the audience, then walked to their seats.

Nearly everyone in the crowded auditorium stood and applauded loudly after graduate Ethan Schager, acting on behalf of a program set up in 2000 by the New York State Legislature, gave his father, Gerald, his high school diploma.

Gerald Schager left Schoharie High School in 10th grade to join the armed forces. He went to Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and served in Vietnam in his last year of service.

"That was a shock," Gerald Schager told The Enterprise. "Everybody knew about it but me. It’s a great honor," he said. Once he stood on the stage, he said, he was "all choked up."


During a media presentation at the ceremony’s onset, photos of the graduates shot up on a screen, accompanied by music: Two graduates, much younger, sat atop horses. Determined athletes in maroon and gold, the school’s colors, competed on the field. A cheerleader flew through the air. An Albany County Sheriff’s Department patrol car sat with a "For Sale" sign suspiciously placed atop its windshield. A naked baby stood looking out at the crowd.

Short videos also played — young men running headlong and sliding down a Slip ’N Slide; the class gathered at a pavilion, dedicating their yearbook to BKW teacher, Jim Lemire. A scene from BKW’s fall musical, The Wizard of Oz, shot on the screen, and Caitlyn Osterhout, playing Dorothy, said, "There’s no place like home."

At The Egg, the class president, Chereith Vincent, challenged her classmates "Never to let anyone tell you who you are or who you should be," and urged them to "never let anyone define you."

"We are all here today, all in the same room, all wearing the same thing," she said. "Maybe today we are leaving a place that has sheltered us from the harshness of the real world"but we are also leaving behind the footprints of each and every one of us," Vincent said.

"Most of us have been looking forward to this moment for quite some time," said William McSpedon, the salutatorian. McSpedon said last fall he realized his last year at BKW could be his last year in the Hilltowns, and he used his remaining time as best he could.

"I started living as if each day were the last," McSpedon said, adding that he dedicated more time to what he knew — "family, friends, and even pets." He also spent time hacky-sacking in the school’s hallways and playing pool "a lot."

"What I’m saying to you is this: You don’t have to be leaving soon or have one foot out the door before you start to appreciate the people around you," he said. "Looking back, there’s not much I would have changed. I’ll miss you all, and wish you the best of luck," McSpedon said.

Dana Ames, the valedictorian, called graduation day "a day of happiness, triumph, and new beginnings." Ames began her speech by saying, "Edward Gibbon once said, ‘I have but one lamp by which my feet are guided, and that is the lamp of experience. I know no way of judging of the future but by the past.’"

She and her classmates "have spent the last 13 years working towards the ultimate goal — graduation," she said.

"In life, we need to learn to trust ourselves and our judgments"Hopefully, you don’t fail. Even if you do, stand up, brush yourself off, and continue on your way to success. No matter where you’re going, don’t ever forget where you came from and what you’ve been through to make you who you are," she said. "Each student on this stage is capable of greatness."

Teachers speak

In their last hours as BKW students, three of the graduates’ teachers gave them final words of advice.

Bentley gave a spirited speech. He taught the class of 2007 when its members were in eighth grade. "Do not go quietly in the night," he said. Bentley cited amazing feats at Niagara Falls, and encouraged the class to not let fear of failure prevent them from going after success.

"At some point in your life, expectations are going to get scary. Life gets a little rough, the road a little bumpy," he said. "Have faith in yourself."

"We are all afraid. I’m petrified right now," said Bentley, who ended with the closing lines of Robert Frost’s famous poem, "The Road Less Traveled."

Another speaker, Brian McCoy, a BKW chemistry teacher and boys’ junior varsity basketball coach, told of a glory story and one young man’s determination — the story of Jason McElwain of Rochester, who was diagnosed with autism at age two, and had been the equipment manager for his school’s basketball team. McElwain finally played at the team’s final home game, and, after shooting an air ball on his first shot, rang off 20 points in the game’s final four minutes.

"If you persevere like Jason, you can succeed," McCoy said. "Every person dies, but doesn’t necessarily live."

McCoy also cited Mahatma Gandhi’s famous words, encouraging the graduates, "Be the change you want to see in the world."

Retired BKW elementary school teacher Lorraine Florentine brought her assistant, a puppet named Alice. Florentine said she retired seven years ago and has often thought to herself: I wonder if I made a difference. Her students, she said, were just 6 years old, and she wonders whether they remember her. Recently, Florentine said, she was invited to a graduation party for a student who had gotten her teaching degree and told her she’d been the inspiration for her becoming a teacher.

Florentine said she was also asked of late to speak at the Class of 2007’s graduation, which she called "truly one of the most cherished moments of my life."

"These are two very special things, and I’m not trying to pat myself on the back about this. I’m trying to say that maybe I made a little, tiny difference," she said, and quickly turned to the graduates’ parents. "You made the ultimate difference," Florentine said. "Family and friends, don’t think that your influence is small."

Snapshots from The Egg

As graduate Sarah Hannay sang "Follow Love," some graduates fought tears during her performance.

Senior choir members stepped to the stage and sang a musical number from the musical Grease! — "We Go Together."

During the presentation of awards, Superintendent Steven Schrade’s list grew long for McSpedon. After receiving a packet of awards from a smiling Petrilli, McSpedon hesitated before taking his seat. It appeared Schrade’s list of awards would not soon end. Audience members began to chuckle, and, once all McSpedon’s awards had been named, they gave the salutatorian a long round of applause.

Jennifer Miller received the Army ROTC Four-Year Scholarship. "It’s always nice to get one of those big checks," said Schrade as Miller, after receiving the award, lugged her large check back to her seat.

Graduate Kristi Dunigan decorated the top of her cap with "2007 Spirit Officer."

A confident, striding Samuel Myron Emory was caught off-guard as a good-humored Petrilli mispronounced his middle name.

"Marion"" Emory said as he crossed the stage to receive his diploma. "Marion""

"Oh. Myron. I’m sorry," Petrilli quickly replied as the auditorium erupted with laughter.

Throughout the presentation, many graduates in the front row glanced at their classmates’ shoes, which included cowboy boots, work boots, high heels, flip flops, dress shoes, and bright orange sneakers.

"You did it, big guy"It was all you," a graduate yelled from the stage as Drew Swint returned to his seat after receiving his diploma.

"I have to agree with Mr. Bentley. This is the best class," said Petrilli after all diplomas had been handed out.

After she officially announced that the graduates had fulfilled all their requirements, members of "the best class" celebrated by throwing their mortarboards in the air and spraying silly string. Petrelli looked on.

"I knew this would happen if I said something nice," she said.

Ames, McSpedon top scholars at BKW

By Tyler Schuling

BERNE — The two top graduates of Berne-Knox-Westerlo’s Class of 2007 are looking forward.

Dana Ames, the valedictorian, will attend Elmira College and was awarded Elmira’s Presidential Honor Scholarship.

William McSpedon, the salutatorian, will attend Fordham University and received the Fordham Tuition Award.

Berne-Knox-Westerlo will only be recognizing the two top students for two more years.

Ames has not yet decided on a major but is leaning toward something in medicine, she said. This past year, Ames participated in the Board of Cooperative Educational Services New Visions program, which is designed for high-school seniors to explore health-related professions. Ames went to St. Peter’s Hospital in Albany each day, where she "got a glimpse" of each medical position, she said.

Ames said of BKW, "It’s a small school, so you get to know everyone."

Ames gets her inspiration from her parents, she said, who always encourage her to do her best.

"This year has been the best year of my life," said McSpedon in his speech on graduation day. "I’ve done things I’ve never done before because I knew I wouldn’t have a chance to do them again."

McSpedon also has not yet determined his major, but will figure it out once he’s in school, he said. McSpedon, who took a Government and Politics class this year, said he is interested in law and government, particularly labor law.

"I’m moving to New York City," he said, which is "something I’ve always wanted to do."

McSpedon’s long-term goals include traveling to Europe. He said he’d like to travel to Rome, Paris and Stockholm. In his last year at BKW, McSpedon was a member of the shared-decision-making committee, open to seniors. He said his class is unique because "no one makes enemies" and "anyone can talk to anyone."

Those who inspire him include: American labor and political leader Eugene Debs, some of his friends, and his father. McSpedon pointed to a moment at his graduation ceremony at the Egg in Albany. His classmate, Ethan Shager, presented his father, Gerald Shager, who left high school in 10th grade to join the armed forces, with his high school diploma.

"That was inspiring," McSpedon said.

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