Belchertown High grads eager for next steps

Senior Chanler Finlay makes his way across the floor to receive his diploma during the Belchertown graduation ceremony last Thursday night at the high school.

Senior Chanler Finlay makes his way across the floor to receive his diploma during the Belchertown graduation ceremony last Thursday night at the high school. STAFF PHOTOS/CAROL LOLLIS

Thomas Marshall makes his way across the floor to receive his diploma during  the Belchertown graduation ceremony Thursday night at the high school.

Thomas Marshall makes his way across the floor to receive his diploma during the Belchertown graduation ceremony Thursday night at the high school. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

Brooke Stelmokas secures Cameron Ting’s cap on as the two get ready for the Belchertown graduation ceremony Thursday night at the high school.

Brooke Stelmokas secures Cameron Ting’s cap on as the two get ready for the Belchertown graduation ceremony Thursday night at the high school. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

Violet Snook makes her way across the floor to receive her diploma during the Belchertown graduation ceremony Thursday night at the high school.

Violet Snook makes her way across the floor to receive her diploma during the Belchertown graduation ceremony Thursday night at the high school. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

Ellie Gelinas, the class president of the 2024 senior class at Belchertown High School, speaks during the graduation ceremony.

Ellie Gelinas, the class president of the 2024 senior class at Belchertown High School, speaks during the graduation ceremony. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

Andre Landon leads his class into the gym as the Belchertown High School graduation ceremony starts Thursday night at the high school.

Andre Landon leads his class into the gym as the Belchertown High School graduation ceremony starts Thursday night at the high school. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

Kami Wlodyka gets a hug from her mom, Valerie Wlodyka, at the end of the Belchertown graduation ceremony Thursday night at the high school.

Kami Wlodyka gets a hug from her mom, Valerie Wlodyka, at the end of the Belchertown graduation ceremony Thursday night at the high school. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

By EMILEE KLEIN

Staff Writer

Published: 06-13-2024 7:44 PM

BELCHERTOWN — In the high school gymnasium bustling with excitement and nerves in the thick, humid air, 155 seniors attempted a formal entrance to their graduation ceremony, but the single-file step-together-step sequence that students had rehearsed for four days quickly transformed into an unsynchronized saunter halfway through before completely devolving into a brisk walk down the aisle.

The procession set a tone for the remainder of the ceremony, with some graduates savoring their last moments as high school students, and others anxious to leave the nest for the bright, hopeful future ahead of them.

Giana Cruz, who’s joining the Air National Guard and going to Westfield State University, is excited to “get out of this small town, because we’re really used to just Belchertown.” Cruz said graduation day is about celebrating “being done with high school after like 13 years in this school system.”

The class, according to graduate Callie Sullvian-Daley, is smaller than most of the past senior classes at the high school, which tend to hover around 200 students. The smaller class with few out-of-district or transfer students means everyone has learned and laughed together since elementary school.

“We’re really just a group of friends,” said Derek Gould, who will attend the University of Connecticut next year.

The team-like mentality was echoed in Principal Christine Vigneux’s address, who compared the students’ upstanding character and commitment to their community to the Boston Celtics’ spirit and mantra, “Different Here.”

“You do things the right way, not because you have to or because someone is making you, but because it is an expectation of this community you have internalized and, in doing so, strengthened,” Vigneux told the graduates. “It is ‘Different Here,’ and we are better for that difference.”

The class salutatorian, president and valedictorian each spoke on different aspects of graduation during the ceremony.

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Salutatorian Zoë Patten reflected on the past through a famous Robert Frost line repeated in S.E. Hinton’s “The Outsiders”: “Nothing gold can stay.” Gold tied together the fleeing moments of Patten’s high school experience, she said, from the golden sunset rays to the gold flecks of an oriole’s wing, and the not-so-beautiful process of growing up and discovering your own path and person.

“After spending so much time at (Belchertown High School), I now understand why it is called ‘The Nest.’ We grew up here, first waddling, then fledgling orioles, and now we are ready to spread our bright, bold wings and fly away,” Patten said.

Class President Ellie Gelinas similarly reflected on her years in Belchertown School District, remarking how much the graduates changed through their answers to the age-old question, what do you want to be when you grow up? The question remains a common inquiry — only now when adults ask the teens about their plans after high school, the graduates are hesitant to respond with such imaginative answers as movie star or “mermaid fairy princess,” she noted.

“Our answers have become increasingly complicated and confusing. We’re no longer imagining 10 years into the future, we’re making concrete plans for what comes next. These decisions are no longer drawn from our imagination alone — they are influenced by a great number of practical considerations,” Gelinas said. “We’ve transitioned from dreaming to defining aspirations with the realities of adulthood.”

Valedictorian Rainer Kristensen looked out into a future full of unknowns, inviting graduates to remember how much unprecedented change the class weathered throughout their high school experience. They started at Belchertown High School not in the building, but online. The advent of artificial intelligence tools like ChatGPT affected their assignments, and some traditions were changed to meet the pandemic’s precautions. Spikes in inflation just as the students got their first jobs and cars tainted their first tastes of adulthood.

Yet Kristensen said these difficult changes fostered resilience and strength that will serve them in the next chapters of their lives.

“So do not just adapt to or accept change, embrace it, seek it, aspire to it, and maybe that way you can shape it, not just for yourself but for the community and world around you,” he told the graduates.

Turning their tassels to the sound of air horns and applause, the graduates had little inclination to dwell much on the class song, off-kilter entrance or hot room.

“I think it’s a good conclusion of the last four years that we’ve put in, and all the hard work and blood sweat and tears,” Gould said. “Getting a diploma shows that all our hard work paid off.”