— Under cool and sunny skies, 103 members of the Class of 2017 accepted diplomas and turned their mortarboard tassels at Saturday’s graduation ceremony at Easthampton High School.
The school band played Pomp and Circumstance as seniors, wearing maroon caps and gowns, proceeded to their seats. All stood for the National Anthem, and listened as Principal Kevin Burke delivered opening remarks.
Burke said his own success would not have been possible without compassion. He quoted Maya Angelou: “Each one of us has lived through some devastation, some loneliness, some weather superstorm or spiritual superstorm. When we look at each other we must say, ‘I understand.'”
Class president Diamond Smith said she feels a deep bond with her class, even though she arrived only two years ago. Smith quoted from scripture, thanked family and teachers, and made reference to recent events where the class stood firm in the midst of tumult.
“If there is one thing I can say about our class, it would be that we are game changers…. We are visionaries. Through the social unrest that took place, the Class of 2017 united to make a positive impact as leaders.”
In late March, members of the class organized a walkout to shine light upon racial tensions at the school. The protest, which followed an assault involving students, led to a difficult public conversation about diversity and civil rights. Officials have since pledged to work to change the school’s culture.
“What we have accomplished this year will be discussed long after our departure,” Smith said. The actions by the class inspired younger students “to help carry the torch we have set fire to.”
Former Easthampton High School principal Dr. Vito Perrone — who is now high school principal in West Springfield — quoted Bob Marley: “Emancipate yourself from mental slavery, none but ourselves can free our minds.”
He talked about how one person can make a difference in the lives of others.
As a teen, Perrone started making bad choices after his father left the family. One day, a football coach at his school grabbed him by the shirt, confronted him, talked about potential, and invited him to try out for the team.
“He cared enough about me to offer me a chance to take another path.”
Perrone eventually attended UMass Amherst as a football player, and competed in Italy. He returned to the states to study education. “And I owe it all to one man. Coach Kelly.”
Perrone later taught English classes at a Nevada prison. A man with history of recidivism was released after earning his GED, and everyone expected him back soon. But three years later, he wrote to his former educator, saying he had completed community college and was headed to business school. The man offered words of thanks.
Perrone said he was taken aback and grateful. “I didn’t judge him as a felon and a criminal. I simply taught him as a student,” said Perrone. “I treated him with respect.”
Salutatorian Angela Nardi made self-effacing jokes about “coming in second,” and honored her classmates by name for their acts of kindness. Valedictorian Hanna Vescovi quoted Nelson Mandela: “There is no passion to be found playing small – in settling for a life that is less than the one you are capable of living.”
Class treasurer Calli Paulin and secretary Frank Cole presented the class gift to Kate Lusnia, president of the Class of 2018. “Two microwave ovens for the Cafe Commons; two wireless microphones for the drama club, and a sapling tree in the name of our class,” announced Cole.
School Committee chairwoman Debora Lusnia listed the students’ academic and athletic achievements, and encouraged all to “be courageous; be part of the solution.”
Superintendent Nancy Follansbee offered congratulations, and class vice-president Karina Volpe delivered closing remarks. To cheers, the high school chorus launched into “Send Me On My Way” by Rusted Root.
Moments before the ceremony began, Assistant Principal Sue Welson was seen offering high-fives and fist-bumps to every member of the class. “These kids are psyched. It’s a wonderful day. We are so proud of our graduating seniors,” she said.
Mary Serreze can be reached at [email protected]