BINGHAM — Sixteen Upper Kennebec Valley Memorial High School seniors took their first collective step into life after high school Sunday, as the tight-knit group of students graduated in front of roughly 300 family members, friends and community members.

“I had the pleasure of knowing each graduate, watch them grow up and evolve, and I take great pride in coming from a small school,” said Kirsten Mathieu, the class’s valedictorian. Mathieu, who plans to attend the University of Maine in the fall, thanked all those who helped get the students to commencement.

“Our success is your success,” she said.

About 300 people packed the high school gymnasium on a hot, sunny Sunday to watch a group of students — most of whom have gone to school together since kindergarten — begin the next part of their lives, whether it be higher education or entering the workforce. Class salutatorian Dylan Belanger described the journey the students had to take to get to graduation before he thanked his parents, teachers and coaches.

“To get to this point involved a series of opportunities,” Belanger said. “One opportunity led to another, which led us to this moment.”

After Belanger’s speech, Mathieu delivered the valedictory address, urging her classmates to continue to enjoy life and not to be afraid to make mistakes.

“Don’t let these four years be the best of your life,” she said. “Make as many mistakes as you can, so one day when they ask us what we want to be, we’ll know.”

High school history teacher and 2002 Upper Kennebec Valley Memorial High School graduate Luke Hartwell was the guest speaker. Having mentored this group of students through teaching and coaching, Hartwell said he was honored to be able to speak at their commencement.

“It’s great. I’m glad for the kids,” Hartwell said prior to his speech. “This group of seniors particularly were great to work with, and they will be missed. I’ve gotten really close with these individuals.”

At such a small school, graduation day is a communal event, according to high school Principal Juliana Richard.

“There will be people here who don’t have children or grandchildren on that stage,” Richard said. “They come because it’s tradition and it’s also the hopes of the town.”

Midway through the ceremony, the graduates all left the stage with carnations in hand to go share a sentimental moment with their family members in the audience. As they arrived back on the stage, the 16 students, most of whom have known each other for most of their lives, took turns embracing one another in an act that is logistically unique to the small class size.

After the ceremony and traditional throwing of the caps, each graduate lined up outside and thanked every member of the audience who came to support them.

Jesse Scardina — 861-9239

[email protected]

Twitter: @jessescardina

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