The Forest Park Middle School commencement at Proviso East kicked off with an announcement from Karen Bukowski, the school’s principal:

“Tonight we have a record number of valedictorians – eight,” she proudly stated. “All eight of those valedictorians have earned the right to speak.”

The ensuing ceremony, therefore, didn’t include the customary speeches by the principal or school superintendent. Instead, the eight valedictorians, all graduating with a 4.0 grade-point average, came to the podium in pairs to share their thoughts on the past three years, and the future ahead.

The transition into high school, while exciting, will also prove difficult for many students, said co-valedictorian Megan Braniff.

“We will be scattering to many different schools,” she said. “It is possible this will be the last time we will see some of our classmates.”

Historically, parents and students in Forest Park have taken advantage of the myriad of options for high school in the area, Superintendent Lou Cavallo said. As is typical for the district, this year’s 113 graduates will be divided among at least 21 high schools next year. The valedictorians are split between Immaculate Conception, Trinity, Proviso Math and Science Academy and Walter Payton College Prep.

While some students’ speeches focused on what lay ahead, others chose to reflect on the support they received throughout their middle school years. Co-valedictorian Nicole Evans thanked teachers, parents and friends for making possible the success she and her fellow graduates have had.

“Our teachers have helped every one of us cross the stage tonight … our parents, they were our first teachers … and we depended on our friends for laughter and support,” Evans said.

Finally, co-valedictorian Emily Mott cited Henry David Thoreau to sum up the hard-won achievements of the graduates, as well as the challenging work that lay ahead for each of them: “You have built your castles in the sky, now lay your foundations under them.”

When the speeches were through, the students were called onto the stage one by one to receive their diplomas. The reading of each student’s name was followed by loud cheers and applause from elated friends and relatives, some snapping photos, others with video cameras in hand.

Shortly before 8 p.m. on June 3, it was official. The last of the beaming graduates filed out of the auditorium, diplomas in hand, golden tassels now hanging from the right of their caps. Notes of sadness and apprehension within the ceremony seemed to melt away, leaving only proud smiles and excitement.

“The future is here,” said co-valedictorian Genarra Bell. And so it was.