As part of Commencement activities, the graduating class selects a class speaker to speak on Commencement day. This year, the class of 2023 selected Luke Ballard ’23 to give the annual address. Below is his speech.
Hello and good morning, my name is Luke Ballard, and I am a four-year senior here at the Williston Northampton School.
I am extremely excited and honored to have been chosen by my classmates to stand up here on this monumental day.
It’s amazing to see all these smiling faces, those familiar and new, parents coming from all different countries, and many different states—we the Williston Northampton school are pumped to welcome you to our home.
This experience still sits as surreal to me, this being a dream I’ve had since freshman year, and now through these past 4 years I have gathered the confidence to stand before you today and give my parting words before the class of ’23 moves into whatever the world holds in store for us next.
Looking back to four years ago today, I was still a student at Belchertown High School, with no plans for ever leaving, and not even a thought about going to a school like Williston.
However, the Luke you see before you today is unfortunately not the one that existed all those years ago.
I was not what you would call an honor roll student. In fact, I didn’t care for school at all—it was an afterthought and quite frankly more of a side hobby for me.
I was a shy and reserved kid who never put myself out there, always holding my true self back from everyone.
I didn’t know who I was. I had bits and pieces of who I thought I wanted to be, and who I thought others wanted me to be.
The first time I became fully aware of what I had become was when I decided to reach out to Williston when I had my first Williston interview with Mr. Dietrich.
He sat me down after my tour and after a couple of those filler questions, he asked: Who was I, and what did I like to do?
And I sat there and said, “Well, I like to play soccer, and I started playing lacrosse because I thought it looked fun.”
And he sat there clearly wanting me to say more, and waiting for me to say more, yet after a couple seconds of awkward silence, I had nothing.
And I sat there and thought, “Dang, is this really all I am, can I really not come up with anything else to describe myself as besides just a surface level athlete?”
And on the car ride back that’s when I knew I had to make a change, because I knew I had the pieces to put something great together, I just needed the right people to help.
I think I spent most of my early years acting this way because I simply wanted to fit in and be accepted.
And although I wasn’t truly happy with who I was, I was happy to be accepted by a group of people.
Five years ago I couldn’t be the Wildestcat I was, going up at assembly with my best friends backed by the fearless “Dean of Fun,” Ms. Davey, to sing “You Belong With Me” or participating as a senior in the all-school fishbowl.
So when I came to Williston for my second freshman year in 2019, I was truly happy for the first time in a long time.
For me, the class of ’23, even though I had just met you all at Camp Beckett, playing tag in the baseball field and canoeing across the lake, you all were my first real family that I truly felt safe around.
To feel like I didn’t have to constrain myself was a feeling of freedom I had never been able to feel before Williston.
Although I didn’t show it, or at least tried not to show it, it meant the absolute most to me to be surrounded by people who cared for me and let me be who I was.
Something I’ll never forget is a photo that was taken at Camp Beckett. It was a small group photo of Joe Easton, Jack Coscia, Owen Dietrich, Izzy Ireland, Chloe Lewis, and Will Chalfant.
For the first time in a long time, I had a photo of me with a real smile, and a photo of me with a real family.
It meant the most to me to be able to smile like that and finally be able to be myself, to have fun doing what I liked to do, and through time that eventually evolved into weekend events with the Wildestcats and sending the newest edition of Luke’s Latest every morning. And yes, not one email was sent later than 8 a.m.!
This sense of safety being something I never experienced before Williston; it is something I will forever be grateful for, along with the many other things that make Williston a place of gratuity.
I am grateful to be welcomed so kindly every day, and grateful to be accepted in the way I was by the class of ’23.
To me, that is part of what makes Williston and the class of 2023 so special, being greeted every morning with a smile from the faculty and teachers and to see our friends walking by to class.
Whether it’s Mrs. Motkya greeting us at the schoolhouse steps before class, J.T making a sassy remark at the cage, or Francesco Grumo in his jean shorts with a massive smile, it’s a privilege to come to school every day with a smile on our faces, and to be able to see a smile on everyone else’s face.
And that’s what makes us a family, these shared experiences of contentedness and gratitude, the countless number of classmates, peers, and faculty who go out of their way to make our days better.
And of course, students also go out of their way, especially the class of ’23.
When we packed the CAC to watch basketball take down Trinity Pawling in dominant fashion, leaving us no doubt that we would be moving on in the NEPSAC Tournament, or to watch girls hockey on their road to an undefeated season taking on rival Loomis in a game that left all of us on the edge of our seats, and believe it or not we did all during an assessment week.
Seeing the entire class at the SpongeBob musical this winter, and at Elephant Man in the fall, is a testament to the commitment and unwavering support the class of ’23 brought with us throughout these past 4 years, and a unique 4 years at that.
Believe it or not, as I am sure many of you have heard, this is our first year of “normal” high school.
Freshman year, we started off strong, but by spring break we were told by Mr. Hill that the break would be extended and that we would not have to report back to campus until April 13th.
To any normal student this seemed like a blessing in disguise, who wouldn’t want an extended spring break? After all according to Mr. Kanelong in my last in-person physics class he told us, “don’t worry it’ll pass within two weeks, we’ll be fine” (it was not fine).
However, it clearly did not pass within two weeks, and we were thrown into an entirely new world of online schooling and isolation.
Returning to campus for our sophomore year for the first time in 7 months, we were surrounded by plexiglass dividers with everyone wearing masks—we didn’t even know what many of our classmates looked like without a mask.
Because of this we truly missed out on what the Williston experience is. Even junior year we still tested often, and, believe it or not, this time last year we were wearing masks to ensure that the class of 2022 could have an in-person graduation.
The Williston experience is unlike any other—canoe races on the pond, and lip sync battles down to the wire, we are truly privileged to be able to experience these things.
And as we close out our senior year, our first normal, undisrupted year, we get the chance to look back.
Look back on the fact that we missed 2 graduations, entire sports seasons, Willy Gras and Willympics, time well spent with friends, playoff games and plays.
Because that is what made this year so special and such a success, we were so grateful to finally be able to return to normal that we took nothing for granted and made the most out what we had with the limited time we were given.
While it feels like it’s too soon, like we didn’t get the time we deserved; it’s time to move on, move on to the next step in our lives.
And as we disperse and go our separate ways, we’ll all carry a piece of Williston with us, always reminding us of the time we had.
But, just like all good things, it must come to an end, and that end is today, some of us have been waiting for 4 years, some of us even 6, and some of us only 1.
As I have been reflecting on my time here at Williston, I’ve been able to look at my biggest takeaway from the high school experience.
Being able to surround myself with people and friends who enable me to be me has serviced me incredibly well throughout my time here.
Teaching me how to be a role model for younger kids, because all those years ago when I was in middle school, I looked up to the “big kids,” who walked through the halls for graduation, and now that’s us.
We were only able to experience this because of the kindness Williston showed us all those years ago when they first enrolled us.
Williston believed in me in a time when I felt like nobody else did, and they took a leap of faith with me, as we did together.
They didn’t have to do this, but they did, they saw something in me that I did not even see in myself, something that I felt like others around me didn’t see either.
Being given a second chance has entirely changed my perspective on everything: people, experiences, and much more.
Being given such a large second chance, a gift out of kindness, it led me to seeing the good in people; that everyone deserves a second chance because no one is perfect, and no one will ever be.
I am forever grateful for what Williston was able to give me and for what it will continue to give me as I move onward with my life.
However, before we go, I cannot only be grateful for Williston, but for a certain woman that works in the Homestead.
Most of you know her as Mrs. Ballard, whether that is from Thank a Wildcat Day, The Founders Day Week, or even the Squash courts—but I know her as mom.
My mother is the reason this entire journey was able to start, and it seems fitting that she gets to close it out. Thank you, Mom, for the young man you have helped me become, and for guiding me on this long and uncertain journey.
And to you the greatest senior class of all time, thank you for taking me on the ride of a lifetime. Your spirit and ability to conquer adversity is a true sign of resilience and Williston character.
And with that being said, to you the class of 2023, remember: It’s always a great day to be a Wildcat.
Thank you for your time, I couldn’t have wanted it any other way.