Graduating in Whoville: Easthampton valedictorian touches on Dr. Seuss lore

  • Angelique Bessette waits with friends for the Easthampton graduation to start Friday night at Easthampton High School. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Nessrine Bentley-El Ahmar, the Easthampton class valedictorian, enjoys a moment during graduation Friday evening at Easthampton High School. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Lily Smith looks for her parents as she waits for the Easthampton graduation to start Friday night. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Nessrine Bentley-El Ahmar, the Easthampton class valedictorian, enjoys a moment during graduation Friday eve ning at Easthampton High School.

  • Shane Cudworth, the Easthampton Salutatorian listens as the Easthampton Principal, William Evans, gives an emothional speech about a mistake made naming the class valedictorian and salutatorian during graduation Friday night at Easthampton high school. —STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Ryan O’Donnell places a hand on a friend’s shoulder as he walks into graduation ceremonies at Easthampton High School on Friday. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Lauralei Hoague looks for her parents as she waits for the Easthampton graduation to start Friday night at Easthampton High School. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Lauralei Hoague looks for her parents as she waits for the Easthampton graduation to start Friday night at Easthampton High School. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

Staff Writer
Published: 6/3/2022 9:58:36 PM

EASTHAMPTON — A class of introverts and extroverts, scholars, artists and athletes graduated on Friday in the community that is said to have inspired children’s book author Dr. Seuss to create the tiny town of “Whoville.”

During Easthampton High School’s commencement, Valedictorian Nessrine Bentley-El Ahmar touched upon a local legend that all the Whos from Whoville were modeled after Easthampton and its inhabitants, and quoted the late children’s book author multiple times in her speech.

“Whoville is a small town that he perceived as home to all people and creatures. It was a place where everyone is unique, and everyone is welcome and accepted,” she said. “This is truly our town. It is a small town, becoming continually more diverse. The class of 22 is rich with young people who are scholars, artists or athletes. Some are introverts, others are extroverts. We come from many different backgrounds and cultures, and we have our own individual visions, ambitions, and motivations. But … We are able to come together and celebrate each other, and wish each other the best as we head on our own journeys.

“As he is watching us all joining here, at the base of Mount Tom, I think Dr. Seuss would be very proud of the Class of 2022 for graduating today, in Whoville, the small, kind, diverse town he imagined it to be,” she said.

Bentley-El Ahmar was one of 113 seniors graduating from the high school Friday. In the fall, she plans on attending the University of San Diego to study psychology. She hopes to write children’s books that are based on her research in psychology in addition to opening her own psychology practice.

Graduate Shane Cudworth razzed himself as he stepped up to the podium twice — for both of the roles he held at the school as both the salutatorian and president of the class.

“OK, I know what everyone is thinking: ‘Is this guy seriously talking again?’” he joked.

Cudworth, who will be attending the University of Massachusetts Boston majoring in music and minoring in history, offered up pride of his fellow classmates in his speech, commending the class on surviving high school under “unprecedented circumstances” and having come out stronger and motivated to make an impact.

Cudworth’s speeches also drew tears to the eyes of many as he spoke of memories of conversations he shared with his father alongside his younger brother around a fire. His father spoke of how important it was to see him graduate high school, he said, no matter what path he chose after. Those memories are something he said he holds particularly tight now as his father died in early 2019.

“It was one of the most important things to him. He wanted us to graduate, and through all four years of high school, I had his words in my mind. I needed to make him proud, I needed to get to this moment now,” he said. “And the reason I am standing here today, and the choices I have made are because of him. And while I have this amazing chance to speak here, on this momentous day, when my voice is being projected as loud as it can be, I want to say: ‘Dad, Happy Birthday,’ but also, ‘I’ve done it, I’m graduating today, I love you.’”

Although the day was filled with jubilant celebration, it was not without a little controversy.

Earlier in the ceremony, an emotional Principal William Evans offered a clarification and explanation regarding the announcement of this year’s valedictorian and salutatorian.

“To put it bluntly, I made a mistake — actually, two mistakes. The first was a procedural error. I simply followed the wrong procedure. The second was an error in judgment,” Evans said. “But fortunately, I work at a place where there are people that are not afraid or hesitant to speak truth to power. … Because I am so blessed, I was granted an opportunity to correct my second error, the error in judgment. It certainly wasn’t an easy thing to do — admitting mistakes never is — but it was the right thing to do.”

Earlier in the week, it was announced that Bentley-El Ahmar and Cudworth would share the title of valedictorian during Senior Award Night at the school.

At the graduation ceremony, Evans noted that the evening’s program had correctly identified Bentley-El Ahmar as this year’s valedictorian and Cudworth as this year’s salutatorian.

When asked for further clarification on what happened, Evans stated that he had already “explained it in his speech” and provided no further explanation.

Evans did note that his announcement at graduation was not the first time Bentley-El Ahmar, Cudworth and their parents were being notified of the mistake. He said he had first spoken with Bentley-El Ahmar and her mother, Nicole, on Thursday, and indicated that Bentley-El Ahmar was the “sole and true” valedictorian.

“Ness’ first comment was: ‘I hope Shane is OK.’ And right on cue, Nicole expressed concern for Shane’s mom,” a crying Evans told the crowd. “To have their first thoughts be for the concern of others … that’s exactly what we’re trying to do here.”

As Evans commended Bentley-El Ahmar and her mother, the crowd erupted in applause.

He also spoke with Cudworth and his mother, Angelina.

“(Shane) looked me dead in the eye and said: ‘I’m OK with that. Ness earned it. She deserves it. And I would rather have it be right,’” said Evans, emphasizing how impressed he was with how both students handled the situation.

Emily Thurlow can be reached at ethurlow@gazettenet.com.

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