‘In hardship we found strength’: Smith Academy fetes 40 grads

  • Benjamin Carpenter listens to his classmates’ speeches during Smith Academy’s Class of 2022 graduation Friday night at the school. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Sofia Panlilio, the valedictorian for the Smith Academy 2022 graduating class, applauds for Riley Malinowski, the administrative assistant picked to give a commencement address, during graduation Friday night. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Amanda Novak, Third Honors, speaks at the Smith Academy 2022 graduation Friday night held at the school. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

For the Gazette
Published: 6/4/2022 6:15:09 PM

HATFIELD — “I’m nervous and excited!” said Smith Academy senior Amanda Novak, minutes before she was to address the crowd at her graduation Friday night in her capacity as Third Honors. Her mission: come up with something to say about each of her 40 classmates.

“Not that hard,” she said with a laugh. “I’ve known them all my life.” Novak is off to Bentley University in the fall, taking one of the 40 with her, Caden Guimond.

Basketball center and rebounding stalwart Aiden Pederson will be majoring in sports management at Holyoke Community College, but he’ll be spending the summer working where he’s always worked, with the go-karts at Pioneer Valley Karting down the street.

“A bunch of us worked there — we all got each other jobs,” he said. You tend to get pretty good at racing, Pederson said, “but this guy was the best.”

The guy was baseball star Samuel Dobson, who explained, “It’s tire pressure — it’s gotta be perfect. And the track’s gotta be hot and humid.” Dobson’s Purple Falcon baseball team was set to compete in the state tournament on Saturday.

One entire wall of the Sherry A. Webb Gymnasium is covered with championship field hockey banners that Webb and her charges brought home, including the state titles of 1993 and 2000, both teams undefeated. Under those fluttering flags walked two harnessed dogs, Brinley and Luna, police comfort dogs well known to all Falcons, brought there by school resource officer Monica Lavallee, who said, “We’re just here to support the kids.”

Even the gym’s scoreboard in this sports-crazy town had the score at 20-22 with 20:22 left in the game.

And talk about tradition. To the piano chords of Pomp and Circumstance, the grads entered through the venerable purple and white archway, slowly, deliberately, one inchmeal step at a time, the young women all in white, the young men in purple, taking their place on stage. If they’d never heard Pomp and Circumstance before, those 22 repeated notes will surely be attached to their eardrums now and forever.

“I’ve learned from Allie (Emrick) how to have fun,” Amanda Novak said in her speech, “from Lauren (Perkins) how to express yourself. Julia (Dobson) told me how to listen, Tanner (Valentine) showed me that there’s no limit to the number of bad jokes you can have.”

Class President and co-Salutatorian Maisy Dyer brought quantum mechanics into her speech, suggesting that the pandemic that hit in March of 2020 “could be considered a negative charge. The lack of laughter with this group was difficult. But we were part of a big 40-person force holding us all together. On Senior Skip Day we went to the beach and dug a hole. All day! We’ve always been able to make something out of nothing.”

Co-Salutatorian Lila Guzowski echoed that, saying, “In hardship we found strength.”

“Omigod!” cried Valedictorian Sofia Panlilio when she first realized that her time at Smith Academy would be six years, with four years of college beyond that. “It seemed insurmountable.”

Now, she says, those four years ahead feel exciting. Panlilio had planned to spend senior year teaching underprivileged children in Ukraine, but COVID had other ideas. “Now, the city that I had planned to spend my summer in is a warzone.”

It’s never been fully explained how the smallest school district in the state routinely achieves academic and athletic excellence — most of these seniors graduated Pro Merito and National Honor Society — but the secret may lie in community support. Principal Conor Driscoll handed out no fewer than 72 scholarships, including the Hatfield Ancient Fyfe and Drum Award and the Edmund “Shipwreck” Jaworski Scholarship.

“You were my first kindergarten class, adorable 5-year-olds,” said Riley Malinowski, the school’s administrative assistant, choking up during her commencement address. “I stood at this exact stage 31 years ago. I’ve been where your parents are now — both my boys graduated here. Funny thing about life,” she said, turning to face the grads directly, “it’s not only what you know, but who you know. When you walk into a room, light it up! But never forget where you came from, always remember to tell ‘em how wonderful this place was.”

As for all that ancient tradition, there were three young women wearing purple: Panlilio, Lauren Perkins and Crista Kemp. “I’m non-binary,” said Panlilio, “so it made sense.” The three had to write a letter to the School Committee to get approval. “I think we were the first,” Perkins said. Meanwhile, one young man, Benjamin Carpenter, opted to go all white. “They were going to say no,” Panlilio said, “but we had this letter!”

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