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Smith School graduates connect academics with passions

NORTHAMPTON — Caleb Rowe was never one to lose himself in schoolbooks. But he distinguished himself in other ways: a master Lego builder, an able partner in his family’s maple syrup operation in Worthington, a personable young man serving diners at their High Hopes Farm restaurant.

“He’s a hands-on kid,” said his mother, Karen Rowe. “Books weren’t his thing.”

And yet, there Caleb Rowe was Thursday night joining other graduates of Smith Vocational and Agricultural High School as they collected their diplomas inside a grand hall at Smith College. And Caleb didn’t just earn a diploma; he marched to the stage wearing the blue mantle of the National Honor Society.

For Rowe, like many of his classmates, the decision to attend Smith School rather than a conventional high school allowed him to make a connection between the demands of school and the passions of his life. As he learned manufacturing skills, he said, algebra and geometry were no longer abstractions.

“Being able to connect it with something I was doing, it made more sense to me,” said Rowe, who has already landed a job with a firm that fashions precision parts for civilian and military aircraft.

The 99 students who graduated hailed from a wide variety of communities, from Northampton to Southampton, Ashfield to Windsor. They specialized in subjects ranging from cosmetology to culinary arts, agriculture to auto repair. Some are going immediately to work, while others will pursue higher education.

As family and friends filled the rows of John M. Greene Hall, the chairman of the school’s board of trustees reminded them that they were shaped by an institution that began as an experiment in 1908.

“You’re proof that the experiment worked,” said Michael Cahillane. “Give yourselves a hand.”

The graduates heard from class president Shawn Wackerbarth and valedictorian Brent Barstow. Wackerbarth recalled their beginnings as clueless underclassmen, marveling at how far they had come with the help of their teachers and the companionship of friends. “Tonight,” he said, “marks another milestone in our lives.”

It is a milestone that, in one sense, marks the end of a journey, said school principal John E. Kelly. “Congratulations, Class of 2014,” he told the students. “You’ve reached the station you’ve been trying to reach for the last 13 years.”

From here, he continued, the tracks lead in all directions. But before heading off, he urged them to register a debt of gratitude for the teachers, staff, family members and community who helped them along the way.

“They believe in you,” he said. “Return the debt.” And one more thing, he added: “Don’t do dumb things with smartphones.”

The graduates were cheered by beaming parents and siblings. One of them, Amber Jacob of Chester, studied graphic communications and plans to go on to college to explore her interests in writing, photography and T-shirt design.

But the most important part of her education, she said, came outside of the classroom. She participated in extracurricular activities including performing arts, book club and “The 84” anti-smoking campaign. Jacob was definitely a doer — a fact not lost on her younger sister, Angela, who stood ready with a bouquet of yellow roses.

“She has a pretty set idea about what she wants from life,” Angela, a Smith Vocational sophomore, said of her big sis. “A very good role model.”

Jeffrey Good can be reached at jgood@gazettenet.com.

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