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WESTFORD ACADEMY: Class of 2018, ‘”You Are Braver than You Believe'”


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Two hours before Westford Academy’s graduation ceremony was set to begin on June 1, a rain shower dampened the turf field on which it would be held and left puddles on the seats of the hundreds of blue folding chairs arranged in row upon row to accommodate family and friends of the almost 400 graduating seniors.

Not a complaint was uttered as family members arrived in their summer best, dressed for hot, humid weather. A tip of the chair seat, a towel produced from the back of a car, a quick wipe and everyone settled in for the two-hour ceremony that pushed another flock of graduates out of the nest.

Principal James Antonelli forewent a traditional speech this year and turned the podium over to three students in the school’s Public Speaking Class. Rebecca D’Anna, Jack Spinazzola, and Steven Okuhara each focused on a facet of their WA experience.

“We are not known as a class of cliques, exclusion or creating enemies. We are the class known for being inclusive and for our motto, ‘no one left behind,'” said D’Anna.

Spinazzola focused on a memory created by the late Matthew Roberge who would have graduated with the Class of 2018.

“Through the struggle of his passing and loss of such a caring individual this class rose up together and created a bond as each one of us mourn our shared loss of someone who could make friends with anyone due to his great personality, kindness and humor,” Spinazzola said.

Roberge died of leukemia in August 2016 at age 16. Later in the ceremony, a white balloon was released to the sky when his name was called as the diplomas were being handed out.

Okuhara offered his classmates advice.

“Make discoveries, be the first something, think the unthinkable, and do the undoable. Do all of these things that make us the incredible people that we are,” he said.

Salutatorian Anthony Zhu received high praise from Wendy Pechacek, Guidance Coordinator for grades 6 through 12, who choked back emotion as she reviewed his high school history. Zhu is headed for the University of Michigan where he plans to major in electrical engineering and computer science.

“Anthony balanced stellar academic performance with participation in varsity cross-country, track and volleyball, DECA, playing the cello, and most importantly to Anthony, service to his community,” Pechacek said. “…Anthony has left an indelible mark on Westford and we will miss him.”

Bound for the combined bachelor and medical doctor program at Brown University, valedictorian Danielle Sawka walked away with a slew of academic awards and accolades from Guidance Counselor Tracy McLaughlin who presented the award.

“…she is interested in working in pediatric medicine,” said McLaughlin. “…we are all looking forward to the future Dr. Sawka’s career path, because the possibilities are endless.”

Before the Westford Academy Honors Choir performed under the direction of Karen St. George, class officers Ian Kim, president, Molly Armstrong, vice president, Param Talwalkar, treasurer, and Ryan Wasylyshyn, secretary, were recognized.

Class speaker Erika Waterhouse paid homage to Roberge, detailing her classmates’ many fundraising efforts to benefit the Matthew Roberge Scholarship Fund.

“That is a class to be proud of,” she said, before ending her speech with a quote from A.A. Milne, who wrote the Winnie-the-Pooh series of children’s books.

“‘You are braver than you believe, stronger than you seem, and smarter than you think,'” Waterhouse quoted.

Superintendent Everett V. Olsen urged the graduates to “look for ways to make others’ lives better,” he said. “Be open to change…Don’t forget the simple pleasures in life…laugh at a good joke. Enjoy a concert. Take time to connect with each other. Life is about interaction.”

This year’s class song was “The Middle” by the rock band Jim Eat World.

The Westford Academy Band also performed during the ceremony under the direction of George Arsenault.

Two students, Joseph O’Donnell and Kenneth Westberry, were applauded for their decision to enter the military.

Finally Kim gave his departing president’s speech by describing lessons learned from his mother, father and sister. He went on to note the tragedy of Roberge’s death he and his classmates faced together. He also noted the smaller disappointments of college rejections and tested friendships.

“But we did not let these hardships get the best of us, and most importantly, we didn’t try to fight these battles alone,” he said.

The final lesson of his high school years, said Kim, came from his classmates who taught him that “sharing our weaknesses does not make us weak…Wherever you find yourself in life, never be afraid to be vulnerable.”

Kim presented the class to Antonelli and with that the beach balls and mortarboards were tossed in the air.

The sun had long since dried the puddles.

UPDATE – The names of students entering the military were added. The spelling of Jack Spinazzola’s name was corrected.