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Pembroke graduate becomes first in family to receive diploma

In Paige Smith’s complicated family history, there is one event that was never present: a high school graduation. Until yesterday, that is.

Smith, 17, graduated from Pembroke Academy yesterday morning, making her the first person in her family to receive a high school diploma.

“I’m sorry,” Smith laughed and said of her accomplishment the week before the ceremony. “I don’t really know what to even say about that. It’s amazing. It’s indescribable.”

Smith’s youth has been riddled with tragedy. She has never lived with her biological mother, and her father was in and out of jail. She has lived on the streets, squatted in empty homes, suffered abuse and molestation, and often went hungry.

Smith’s life began to turn around when her maternal aunt adopted her in October 2009. Although she struggled to suppress frightening flashbacks while she was a freshman at West High School in Manchester, Smith survived this period and began to work through her past when she transferred to Pembroke in April 2010.

“The teachers are so supportive here,” Smith said. “Whenever I needed someone to talk to, there was always an ear, no matter who it was. . . . I could tell any one of them anything.”

Even after she was in a stable and supporting environment, Smith still often struggled to keep up with her schoolwork. At the end of her junior year, she realized how far behind she was in her credit hours.

Luckily, Smith said, her guidance counselors and Headmaster Michael Reardon helped keep her spirits up and her focus strong.

“They’d say, ‘Paige, you have to keep pushing forward, school is your second home, and when you’re here you don’t have to worry about anything else,’ ” she said. “So senior year I would just focus and push, push, push myself.”

And after a long year of splitting her time between day and night classes, varsity softball practices and playing volleyball with special education students, Smith’s hard work paid off as she graduated yesterday morning with the rest of the Class of 2013.

Class President Ginger Gates opened the ceremony with a year-by-year account of how the class grew from segregated individuals who were unconcerned with the struggles of others to a cohesive group of friends who valued each others’ compassion and kindness.

“This is the heart of our story,” Gates said. “It is not all about our class’s superior grades or artistic talent or athletic ability, it is about the distance we traveled to come together. It is our ability to transcend our insecurities and challenges, and connect to each other with humanity and kindness despite where we once were.”

“This will be the gift we take away from Pembroke Academy and deliver to the world.”

Gates urged her classmates to never forget the story of their journey and reminded them that despite not always being the best people they can be, they are all better than they once were.

Salutatorian Emily Blain focused on the next segment of the class’s journey, the part where the graduates leave Pembroke behind and search for their own passions and purposes in life. She encouraged her classmates to find a passion that excites them, much like enthusiastic teachers are often excited by their material.

“And when you do find it, be producers of it and share it with others,” Blain said. “You will know you have found your passion because it will feel too big to keep to yourself. You will want to show it to everyone else in your life because the best happiness is the kind you can share.”

Sharing one’s passion will then in turn lead to a purpose in life, Blain said, a purpose that is specialized for every individual.

“You are unique and valuable in your ability to make a difference in your world,” she said. “There is no one else with the same set of interests and skills that you have and that means only you are capable of the achievements your future holds.”

But even though their futures may be far flung and varied, valedictorian Nicole Packard reminded the Class of 2013 that their experiences together have affected every one of them in significant ways that will remain with them for life.

“This past semester has gone by quickly, and as the day comes to a close, we will all be starting our different journeys,” she said. “Regardless of the path taken, we all share a common ground. We spent the past four years at Pembroke Academy, and now we’ve made it.”

As for Smith, she plans on her future path including at least one more inaugural event in her family history: a college graduation.

In the fall, she will attend NHTI to study criminal justice. But Smith said her dream of becoming a crime-scene investigator would have proved utterly unattainable if it were not for a certain group of people.

“Pembroke Academy is like my family,” she said. “They helped me with things I thought I’d never be able to get through.”

(Mel Flanagan can be reached at 369-3321 or mflanagan
@cmonitor.com.)

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