PITTSFIELD — Ninety-five students mill about restlessly in a too-warm ballet studio on the second floor of a building on the Maine Central Institute campus shortly before their noontime graduation Sunday, checking their appearance frequently in the mirror-covered wall while they wait for the ceremony to begin.

Each student has a story.

Take Alex Weeman, a 17-year-old resident of nearby Detroit, who is horsing around with his buddies while waiting for a sign from the teachers that it is time to line up to make their way to the ceremony.

All around him, the girls make small adjustments to their flowers and white dresses in the mirror, then help the boys, and then return to adjust their own clothes again. The boys call each other champ and dog and ask each other when, exactly, they will leave town, and how far they will go, and how much time might pass before they see each other again.

Seeking relief from the heat, some walk by the only box fan, which is set up on a small stage at one end of the room, or fan themselves with their square graduation mortar boards, white for the girls, maroon for the boys.

At six feet three inches, Alex towers over most of his classmates, but what might be an intimidating presence is softened by his boyish face, his ears sticking out prominently a few inches above his broad shoulders.

He stands on tiptoe for a picture beside the only fellow graduate who is taller than he is. Alex and a close friend pose with their arms draped around each other, and then Alex suddenly scoops the boy’s legs out from under him and holds him in the air for another picture, looking like the leading man in an antiquated movie, spiriting away a damsel in distress.

Alex and his buddies joke about whether or not they’ll cry during the ceremony.

Minutes later, after filing out of the room and heading toward the stage at the outdoor ceremony site, Alex is in tears.

Alex’s story

The reasons for Alex’s tears are wrapped up in his own story, which underwent a dramatic change two years ago, when he was a sophomore without motivation or direction.

“I could remember in biology class, just talking to friends, not caring about schooling,” he said. “I was just getting by.”

His grades were mediocre despite the active support of his father, Richard Weeman, who rose to the rank of postmaster during a 26-year career with the U.S. Postal Service.

Alex said his father, who graduated from Maine Central Institute himself in 1982, pushed him to do better in school, even helping with his homework, but Alex still lacked drive.

“He was just going through the motions,” his mother, Rufena Weeman, said. “We said, we know you can do better than this. Smarten up.”

Alex was reluctant to do chores and spent a lot of time fighting with his older brother, Eric Weeman, a high school senior at the time.

On the first of May, near the end of Alex’s sophomore year, Eric was in Portland with a recruiter from the Marine Corps. Alex and his parents were preparing for bed. Alex was sitting at his computer when a strange man walked past his open bedroom door.

“I was like, ‘who are you?'” Alex said.

It was a paramedic, hurrying to administer CPR to his father, who had suffered sudden and unexpected heart failure. Richard was declared dead soon after.

The devastating death changed everything for the Weemans. Rufeena went into a spiral of grief.

“After Dad passed away, the next four months, Mom couldn’t do anything,” Alex said. “I couldn’t blame her.”

Alex said he and his brother, Eric, grew closer, but in the fall, the Marine Corps sent Eric to Okinawa, Japan. Alex hadn’t seen him since.

Eric had misgivings about continuing to pursue a military career, but the family encouraged him.

“That was his way of coping with it,” Rufena said. “He couldn’t be in the house.”

It was a massive change for Alex. With his father dead, his older brother gone, and his mother distracted from parenting by her grief, suddenly no one was left to care about his success.

“I didn’t have the strength in me to force it onto him because I was still in grieving,” Rufena said.

She said it was a pivotal time for Alex, a time when a student can open or shut doors for themselves.

“They’re either going to turn out good, or they’re going to turn out bad,” Rufena said.

Despite the devastating loss of his father, Alex turned out good.

Rufena said Alex had an awakening the day she accidentally left her diary, usually hidden away, out on the coffee table where he stumbled upon it.

“He found it,” she said. “I was writing in it. My emotions. I think that was what did it. It made him see the deep grief, and it made him step up.”

Alex said his father’s death caused him to undergo a process of maturation.

“It just made me think, ‘Hey, I need to do something with my life,'” he said. He joined the football team and began tackling academic work in earnest. He also began doing more around the house.

“When I asked him to do something before his father died, it was like pulling teeth,” Rufena said. “Now he’ll whine a little bit like any teenager, but he’ll do it. He realizes that I can’t do it all myself.”

Graduation day

Alex has made highest honors in his class. He plans to attend the University of Southern Maine, aided by $11,000 in scholarships that he has earned. When he graduates, he hopes to land a job taking care of computer networks in the business world.

Hours before graduation, preparations for the post-graduation party are in full swing at the Weeman home, a four-bedroom house with a long dirt drive off Route 220.

A rented white canopy has been erected over four or five tables resting on a newly mowed lawn, and two grills stand ready to char mountains of hotdogs and hamburgers for the post-ceremony guests.

Alex’s Uncle Harry, a former military man who is passionately against government interference in his hobby of gold panning, calls out to Alex, who is in a sideroom changing into a nice outfit he purchased for the occasion.

“Have I kicked your ass yet today?” Uncle Harry calls through the door.

Alex’s reply is muffled, but he doesn’t sound frightened. A few minutes later, Uncle Harry asks the family dog, a large golden retriever, whether it needs its ass kicked today.

Alex’s father’s presence is still felt throughout the home, which he built when Alex was two. His pictures are on the walls, along with his guns, bows and hunting trophies.

Alex’s grandfather says Alex will be well prepared to meet the future.

“These young people, they don’t do it with picks and shovels anymore,” he says. He taps his head. “They do it all up here.”

Alex leaves the house and goes to the school ballet studio to wait with his classmates for the ceremony to begin.

Minutes after joking about whether he would cry, Alex is waiting outside in a line of graduates alongside the stage when it happens. His brother Eric, whom he hasn’t seen in two years, walks toward him from the crowd, dressed in full military uniform, a surprise that Eric and Rufena kept secret until this moment.

As they embrace, Alex bends over to rest his sweating head on his older brother’s shoulder, his face clenched with emotion and tears seeping from his eyes.

Rufena says the day is a time for the family, torn asunder by grief, to come together and find some closure.

“This is the last time the house will have the family in it,” she says.

The house, too big for Rufena to live in by herself, has been sold. By July, Alex will be in school, Eric will be back in Japan, and Rufena will have moved into a new home.

“It’s the last milestone in a young man’s life before he starts his future,” Rufena says.

But Alex Weeman is just one of the 95 students who crossed the stage to receive their diplomas a short while later.

And each one has a story.

Matt Hongoltz-Hetling — 861-9287
[email protected]

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