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Graduates Grace Stadium Stage

Trains, cows, the smell of tomatoes ... all figured in to the commencement address given by co-Valedictorians Matt Heflin and Brian Arotca at Friday night's Escalon High School graduation, as the two shared their memories of high school, growing up in a small town, and preparing for the adventures ahead.

"It has been a long and hard four years but we are finally here," Arotca told the capacity crowd at Engel Field. "We want to congratulate our classmates on a job well done."

Heflin said Escalon's often distinct summer aroma is a good way to tell people how to get here.

"You travel until you smell it," he said, to chuckles from the crowd.

He also offered his thoughts on how his participation in various clubs, activities and organizations has prepared him for the future, and Arotca echoed the sentiment, noting how playing on the soccer team helped him reach "a lot of goals."

The two, who maintained a perfect 4.0 grade point average throughout their high school years, took the podium together to deliver the address. They thanked friends and family for supporting them on the journey, told their classmates to continue working hard to achieve their dreams and - keying in on a theme for the school this year - urged everyone to "Be the Change."

Friday's 88th commencement at Escalon High featured some 225 graduates, marching in to Memorial Stadium to the traditional Pomp and Circumstance, followed by a welcome from Senior Class President Sara Castledine.

"Graduation is a stepping stone," Castledine told her classmates. "Make the most of the life you're given and strive for the greatness I know is in all of you."

Senior Erika Eck received thunderous applause after performing the National Anthem, with board members Al Caton and John Largent then making presentations for the Teacher and Classified Employee of the Year.

Retiring teacher Steve French was honored as the Teacher of the Year.

"He has over 30 years as an educator, coach, an activity advisor, he's taught nearly every class in the social studies department," Caton said of French.

Adding that he goes about his work in a "quiet and most humble manner," Caton said French also has made a huge impact on the school and community though his work with students in PIT, the Peer Interaction Team.

"It gives the students a better understanding of themselves and others," Caton said.

To a standing ovation, French accepted the award and took the podium.

"To get this award in my 32nd and final year makes it extra special," he admitted.

Thanking his family for the support over the years, French said he had also been mentored by some outstanding teachers in the district over the years, especially the late Pat Coslet, along with fellow teacher, coach and friend Bob Loureiro.

He offered his congratulations to the senior class and said while he knows many were thinking they couldn't wait to get out of Escalon - "to live in a city big enough to have a Target store" - he said the truth is many will someday return.

"The values, security and education opportunities you want for your kids are here," he said.

And even though he never envisioned staying here very long, French said the 32 years was time well spent.

"To raise a family in safety, to live where you can make a difference," he said of the satisfaction he has gained teaching here. "Thank you, Escalon, for welcoming me in to your community and allowing me to teach your kids."

Classified Employee of the Year honors went to Kurt Enochs, who works at all the district sites as part of the maintenance team. He has been in the district since 1994 and received his appreciation plaque from board member John Largent.

"For 14 years he's been serving all the schools within the district," said Largent. "There's not a job he can't take on and do well."

Enochs took the podium and told the crowd he was "humbled" by the honor and told graduates to go after their dreams, no matter what they are.

He also said he found his niche and is happy to be with the district.

"The ability to work with your hands is one of the greatest gifts God has ever given," he said.

High School Assistant Principal Mark Vos then offered some remarks, noting that graduating seniors earned over $372,000 in scholarships, presented during a recent awards night at the school. (See complete list in the June 11 issue of The Times.) Student honorees stood to be recognized, with Heflin and Arotca then taking the podium for their speech.

Principal Joel Johannsen also addressed the crowd and presented the class for graduation.

"Current estimates from the USDA put the cost of raising a child, from birth to 18, at upwards of $300,000 or about $1.90 an hour," he said.

For that, however, he said you get "endless wonder over ants, rocks, clouds and warm chocolate chip cookies" and the chance to impact young lives.

"For $1.90 an hour, there is no greater bang for your buck," Johannsen said. "In the eyes of your child, you are right there, a notch below God ... you love without counting the cost."

He praised parents for helping get their children to Friday night and certified the students for graduation. Diplomas were then presented by board members, with plenty of cheering on of fellow classmates, lots of applause from the crowd and a couple of beach balls being batted around.

Eck led the group in the Alma Mater, the tassel ceremony was led by Castledine and then mortarboards flew skyward as the class officially entered the ranks of graduates.

"Oh my gosh," gushed an excited Suzy Pappas, accepting hugs from family and friends. "I don't know what to say ... exuberance, I feel amazing. I'm moving to Los Angles, to go to college and do auditions, pursue my dreams."

Graduate Faryn Bolls is headed to CSU Monterey Bay, where she will share a dorm room with friend Megan Moore and study to be a marine biologist.

"I feel great," she said with a smile. "It's kind of like the stress is all gone."

Brett Patterson said the ceremony was a fitting end to a four-year journey.

"I just enjoyed the whole ceremony, being with everyone in the class" he said, sharing the moment with family members. "It really hasn't hit me yet."

New graduate Cody Bandini said he'll head to Delta College or MJC to pursue an associate degree in business and hopes to wrestle in college as well.

He said it's a good feeling to embark on a new chapter.

"I'm thankful," Bandini said. "Now life begins."