by Will Tuell
Elm Street School in East Machias offered the right mix of joy and sorrow at its 2023 eighth-grade graduation as family members, friends, and staff gathered to honor the 17 boys and girls who will be leaving the school of their youth and moving on to high school in the fall. But it was one who would not be moving on, Wesley Keeton – the four-year-old East Machias boy who tragically lost his life in an ATV accident a decade ago – that principal Tony Maker, Keeton’s would-be classmates, and hundreds of onlookers took time to honor and reflect upon during the hour-long ceremony that both tugged at the heartstrings and transformed tears to smiles with the crowning of the school’s Alewife King and Queen before the ceremony drew to a close.
Maker opened by congratulating the class for putting in the work to catch up after the pandemic, saying that many students struggled with remote learning and an abnormal school schedule during the pandemic but that they have successfully made it to graduation.
“This particular class -- about halfway through their fifth-grade year -- they were sent home when the pandemic hit,” Maker said. “There was some catching up to do. Some extra time needed to be put in. Some extra work had to be done. And sometimes that’s not easy. For some of the kids, that was a little bit more difficult to get them there, but they worked hard, and they have reached this pinnacle tonight, which is one of those steps in their lives [where] they’ll move on to the next level, and they’ll go on to high school.”
While absences at graduations are rarely talked about or acknowledged, Elm Street proved the exception as Maker went on to reflect upon the void Keeton’s loss left, both to the community and a school he never got to attend.
“Before we do that [recognize students receiving awards], I want to take just a moment to bring to mind the fact that all of the eighth graders are wearing flowers tonight. Those flowers were a gift from the grandmother of Wesley Keeton. Wesley would have been a member of this 8th-grade graduating class,” Maker said. “In the back row….is a chair with a flower which would have been his chair. Now, Wesley never got the opportunity to even begin school here when a terrible accident took his life, but we stand here today, as a school and as a community, because of the vision of his family that has done so many good things [in his memory]….If you follow the Red Sox, you’ve probably heard of The Jimmy Fund, which was a charitable organization that was started to help children with childhood cancer. If you live in the eastern part of Maine, you know what the Wesley Foundation is. There is not a single person that lives in this area, probably not in the gym here tonight, that has not either contributed to, helped fundraise for, or been a beneficiary of some of the incredible work that the Wesley Foundation has done. And so tonight, we want to make sure that we remember that as we celebrate these 8th graders; we want to celebrate the area where we live; and we want to recognize the fact that through such a tragic, tragic event, good has come, and we are thankful for that.”
Later in the evening, Keeton’s parents – Lee and Kate Keeton of East Machias – were awarded the diploma Wesley would have received had he lived.
As the audience brushed away a stray tear, the ceremony took on a lighter tone. Students received recognition for participation in a range of sports, including cross country, soccer, volleyball, boys and girls basketball, baseball, and softball; participation in Student Council, which recently had the opportunity to serve as pages at the state capitol in Augusta. Three students were recognized for earning high honors – Katie Neal, Hunter Roberts, and James Welch – while three others – Jayden Corey, Isiah Minard, and Kienan Pelletier – picked up honors during their eighth-grade year.
But the mood truly lifted as Maker and Elm Street graduate Lydia Sprague who was one of the first kids to participate in the school’s long-running alewife harvesting program, crowned Hunter Roberts as the school’s latest Alewife King and Kensie Hicks as its 2023 Alewife Queen.
“I’m a poor stand-in for the gentleman who should be presenting these awards,” Maker said, referring to East Machias selectman and State Representative Ken “Bucket” Davis, who could not attend due to a late evening legislative session in Augusta. “I know how much it disappoints him. He made many trips back and forth to Augusta the past three or four weeks just to do the traditional alewife harvesting and smoking with the students. He would drive back at 3 a.m., leave here at noontime to go back to Augusta, and then drive back home that night so he could be here with the students. Not only does he love to do that, but he loves to pass that tradition on to the next generation. And I hear story after story about how quickly the kids catch on, how well that they do – it’s not for the faint of heart; they have to take these fish and gut the fish, clean the fish, smoke the fish, put the fish in the smokehouse, take them out. And then, I think the real pleasure comes not only when Bucket takes them down [to Archibald’s] to get a snack but when they make that connection with an older generation. There are people in their 70s, 80s, and 90s that will make their way down to the smokehouse with the hopes of getting smoked alewives. I don’t know how you feel about smoked alewives, but they’re not my favorite thing. But there are some people, when they grew up, that was one of the staples that they had in their household. And they’d come back [to the smokehouse], and that connection was made between that generation and this generation.”
Maker went on to say that Hicks and Roberts were two students who got the essence of the student alewife program which Davis and Elm Street launched over a decade ago.
After brief remarks by AOS 96 Superintendent Scott Porter, who told students that “hard work and a good attitude” will take them a long way in whatever they chose to do with their lives, he and Maker awarded diplomas to the graduating class.
This year’s graduates include Mathew Aaserud, Jayden Corey, Chasity Cummings, Dylan Dowling, Aiden Espling, William Ferguson, Kensie Hicks, Kaiden Jones, Desiree Jordan, Aidan Knox, Isiah Minard, Catherine “Katie” Neal, Kienan Pelletier, Hunter Roberts, Dahlia Sternberg, James Welch, and David Wood.