EagleTribune.com, North Andover, MA

June 14, 2013

Pinkerton cancer survivor barred from commencement

Student beats cancer, but math failure keeps him from commencement

By John Toole
jtoole@eagletribune.com

---- — DERRY — Brandon Paquette overcame cancer, but geometry proved a tougher foe.

The Hampstead resident’s failure to pass that high school class — amid renewed health worries — is preventing him from walking with his Pinkerton Academy classmates at graduation Monday.

Pinkerton administrators are standing by school policy that will keep Brandon, 18, out of a cap and gown at the Verizon Wireless Arena in Manchester.

“I’m very disappointed,” Brandon said yesterday. “I just think it is pretty unfair. I want to be able to walk with my classmates.”

Brandon blames his academic trouble, in part, on absences as doctors tested for a possible cancer relapse. That proved unfounded.

He said he missed instructional days, however, falling behind.

“I could never catch up,” he said.

Brandon and his family understand school officials refusing him a diploma. He intends to take a summer class in geometry to fulfill his requirements and get his diploma in hopes of serving in the U.S. Air Force.

They are confident he will pass geometry this summer. They point to the time the Children’s Miracle Network recognized Brandon for his perseverance.

They just don’t understand why school officials can’t see that Brandon’s health issues ought to get some consideration and let the young man participate with his classmates.

“Unfortunately for Brandon, he’s been very sick over the years, he had cancer, and he’s gone through a lot,” his mother Kristine Paquette said. “I just wanted them to let him walk and participate at graduation. I thought that was a reasonable request.”

For Pinkerton officials, the decision came down to what graduation represents.

“Graduation is meaningful; it recognizes students who have met the requirements for a high school diploma,” headmaster Mary Anderson said in a written statement. “Pinkerton admires the hard work of all students, especially under trying circumstances, but participation in the graduation ceremony is for students who are graduating.”

The school’s director of public affairs, Chip Underhill, said the issue has come up before, but he didn’t have specifics as to how many times.

He did say Pinkerton has been consistent through the years, allowing only those who have fulfilled graduation requirements to participate in commencement exercises.

Anderson made clear the school is committed to seeing all students graduate.

“Our ultimate goal is nothing less than graduation for every student,” she said. “We work earnestly with all students to help them achieve their diploma, in the time they need to meet graduation requirements.”

Pinkerton’s 2011-2012 graduation rate, posted by the state Department of Education, was 86.6 percent. That matched the statewide rate.

Paquette has not appealed to the School Board because she said the family only this week learned her son could not walk at graduation.

About 750 students are expected to graduate Monday.

For Brandon, this is very discouraging, his mother said.

“He’s like, ‘This has come to nothing,’” she said. “I’m telling him, ‘No, buddy, this was not for nothing.’ But he’s not going to get to walk with his class.”

Paquette said she understands why her son wouldn’t get a diploma.

“His grade wasn’t there,” she said. “He has to take some responsibility.”

But she said she sees the effort he put in to school over the years while sick, dealing with five surgeries, spending a lot of time in summer school and working with tutors.

He suffered from a rare form of cancer that caused a pseudopapillary tumor of the pancreas. Complications cost him his spleen.

The Children’s Miracle Network selected him as New Hampshire’s Champion Child in 2008. He met Miss America. Many people in the community reached out to the family and rooted for him in his years-long battle.

“A lot of people out there supported him over the years,” his mother said.

Brandon always will have to watch for cancer’s return, but he is approaching five years of being cancer free.

“It just would have been nice to see him walk,” she said. “It’s a shame.”

Brandon did get a different kind of graduation experience this spring.

He was presented a laptop through the Childhood Cancer Lifeline of New Hampshire organization at a brunch last month.

“That was amazing,” his mother said.

Brandon said he would walk with classmates, should administrators reconsider, but he doubts that will happen.

His mother expects Brandon will put this behind him, despite the disappointment.

“He’s been through many struggles,” she said.

Brandon plans to go to graduation, even though he won’t walk with his classmates.

“I’m going to go because a bunch of my friends are graduating,” he said. “I want to be there for them.”