Gatale Rama had a much longer wait than most of the Schenectady High School Class of 2014. When he finally donned his cap and gown Friday, he was 21.
“It’s a glory. Finally done with school,” he said as he leaned against a railing outside Proctors, ignoring most of the bustle of younger students around him.
He stuck with school for years more than most, going to the district’s smaller high school, Steinmetz Career and Leadership Academy, to focus on carpentry. He thought about quitting many times, he said, but his teachers kept him going.
“There was some positive stuff they said — you’re almost there, look at it as a road, you’re not at your destination yet,” he said.
In the end, he decided to ignore the rest of the student body — “too much drama” — and follow one mantra: “Just keep doing me.”
He spent his final year taking carpentry classes and working in a school-arranged internship. Now he hopes to find full-time carpentry work.
This year, Rama was sure he’d graduate, but some others had a nail-biting ending. Bayrex Acosta, 18, came to Schenectady as a senior from Puerto Rico. This is his third high school. The last hurdle between him and graduation was the algebra Regents exam, which he took at the very end of the school year.
“Three days ago, I didn’t know if I passed my Regents or not,” he said.
Everything hung on the phone call with the final grade: an 81.
“I was so happy. I didn’t believe it,” he said. “I studied all year.”
Now he’s joining the National Guard.
Others said the class advisers got them to graduation — imploring, persuading, dragging reluctant students back to their books.
“In 10th grade, I kind of lost track of myself. I got into the wrong crowd,” said Jessica Bouck, 17.
Her advisers set her straight when she began skipping school to hang out with her friends.
“It made me realize how important education was,” Bouck said. “They were just there. They were more understanding than others would be.”
The advisers, Corinna Heggen and Jennifer Clark, became more than just teachers.
“They’re family,” Bouck said.
Her friend Amanda Petrie, 17, agreed wholeheartedly.
“They’re mothers to us,” she said, adding that they “whipped me back into shape.”
“Every year,” she said.
Many students cited the encouraging — or insistent — words of school officials as finally getting them to graduation. Felix Rodriguez recalled the shocking day when he failed trigonometry. He was taking advanced classes and never thought he’d actually fail one.
“That’s the only class I did fail in high school,” he said. “It was bad.”
A guidance counselor finally helped him get over the psychological blow.
“My guidance counselor said, ‘It’s not that big of a deal, you don’t need it to graduate,’ ” he said. “I didn’t get an Advanced Regents [diploma], but I got into college without it.”
He’s going to Utica College and hopes to become a police officer.
In all, 421 students graduated Friday. So many family members packed into Proctors’ main theater for the ceremony that there weren’t enough seats — latecomers had to watch on a separate screen in the nearby GE Theater.
Parents weren’t thrilled about that, saying their children wouldn’t hear them cheer from another room. But as other parents filtered out when their children crossed the stage, parents who had been waiting outside squeezed in.
Many recorded the entire event, using whatever they had — cellphones, laptops, iPads.
Speeches took only an hour, but the seniors still grew restless. They shouted for several minutes at the end of their guest speaker’s address and did so again with the next speaker. The noise forced school board President Cathy Lewis to shout her final words to them.
“You’re a very diverse group,” Lewis said. “You have an understanding of what it is to live in a multicultural, multiracial community, and our country needs that badly.”
Others offered advice. Martha Asselin, acting president of Schenectady County Community College, told them to stay in the now — and not worry about the future or the past.
“Soak in the moment, in the here and the now,” she said.
Students shouted through most of the last few minutes of her speech, forcing her to pause several times.
Lewis said the rudeness was discussed by many school officials at a reception after graduation.
“I felt badly about Martha,” Lewis said. “I thought things were a little out of control.”
But she added that she didn’t take it personally and was pleased when some students praised her speech as they walked across the stage later.
“It was an exuberant graduation,” Lewis said, “and there are bigger mistakes to make.”
District Superintendent Laurence Spring added that he didn’t think much of it.
“It sounded like kids who were eager to get graduated,” he said. “It didn’t sound disrespectful.”
The students were far more attentive when their salutatorian and valedictorian spoke. Valedictorian Margaret Brudos said she felt the spotlight had unfairly singled her out, so she called on nine other graduates to come to the stage. Each stood for one of her nine “steps to success,” and were given the microphone to describe a weakness.
One of the school’s best singers said she didn’t believe in herself, to shocked gasps. Another said he felt obligated to fulfill others’ expectations of him. Then Brudos asked the class to celebrate her speakers’ successes and had each describe something they did well.
She told them that was the way to go — compensate for weaknesses and move on.
“Play to your strengths,” she said.