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COMMENTARY

Sean Kirst: For rising Buffalo students, medal provides 'gateway to a whole new world'

Before Mohammad Bhuia could give his undivided attention Tuesday to one of his great moments as a father, he had a mission he needed to complete.

His toddler son, Shayan, was tired and restless in the auditorium at Buffalo’s West Hertel Academy. Mohammad carried the little boy to the back of the hall. The father walked in patient back-and-forth rotations, speaking softly to the child until Shayan's head dropped onto his dad's shoulder.

Mohammad Bhuia hurried back and handed his sleeping son to his wife, Sumaiya. Their daughter Mukut was about to receive the silver medal in the annual Jesse Ketchum ceremony, a 147-year-old Buffalo city schools tradition that spotlights the finest scholars in the previous academic year’s eighth grade.

Sarley Bhuia, their sixth grade daughter, had a job of her own. She lifted a phone and captured the scene on video as her sister accepted her award and many handshakes from beaming adults, including Buffalo Mayor Byron Brown.

“This is everything,” said Ellen Grant, president of the Jesse Ketchum Memorial Fund. “This is the gateway to a whole new world.”

For Mukut, born in Bangladesh, Grant's words held particular meaning. Jesse Ketchum was a 19th century Buffalo businessman and a fierce champion of public education, a guy who provided city schools with land and resources and routinely brought new books to standout students.

In 1871, four years after he died, his son-in-law donated $10,000 to create a permanent fund for academic medals in Ketchum's memory. Almost 150 years later, this unique-to-Buffalo ritual lives on, even if the grade levels of the recipients have occasionally shifted over the years.

Bill Greco, 67, a retired cancer researcher at Roswell Park Comprehensive Cancer Center, serves as historian for the award — in no small part because his own story so completely illustrates the point.

More than 60 years ago, his family had to find its way, day to day, after Greco's father was released from prison. Those hard times brought the boy to one early conclusion.

During the Jesse Ketchum medal ceremony, gold medalist Mallory McMahon and silver medalist Mukut Bhuia wait to be called to the stage at the West Hertel Academy. Almost 40 students, now freshmen in high school, were honored for academic excellence in eighth grade. (Robert Kirkham/Buffalo News)

As Greco told the youths in the auditorium, he understood that scholastic excellence was his best hope “to dig my way out of poverty.” Earning the Ketchum medal emerged as his childhood goal. A few years later, when that moment came to be, it was an achievement of such power that handing down the lore of the medals turned into his passion.

Many of Tuesday's 37 recipients – there was a gold medal, a silver one and 35 in bronze – shared some element of that "hardscrabble upbringing," in the words of William Kresse, principal at City Honors School. Greco said plenty of young Ketchum winners went on to great accomplishments over the years, including an actor by the name of Sorrell Booke.

Booke's fame peaked when he played “Boss Hogg” in the 1970s on the old “Dukes of Hazzard” television series. By chance, he had gone to school in Buffalo with the late Edward McMahon, grandfather of City Honors freshman Mallory McMahon, the top honoree at Tuesday's ceremony.

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Her 99.17 academic average was the best among eighth graders in 2018, making her the Ketchum gold medal recipient.

“I take a lot of time with everything I do,” Mallory said, which her parents cheerfully described as an understatement.

Mallory's mom, Karen, is a physician assistant. Her dad, Tim, runs a string of downtown hot dog stands. Their daughter plays three musical instruments, competes in swimming and volleyball, has been a dancer since she was 3 and is “thorough and meticulous, even in her hobbies,” as Tim put it, a statement that brought a nod of emphatic agreement from their 11-year-old son, Dillon.

While Mallory is not absolutely sure of what she wants as a career, she has some overriding goals. She spoke of reaching across divisions in the city and of making a difference in the world, a focus shared by many of the 37 Ketchum winners.

Ivaneliz Ruiz attended the ceremony with her grandmother, Madeline Chiclana, a native of Puerto Rico. The teen made a point of offering gratitude to her mother, Zuleima, who works as an aide in a nursing home. Ivaneliz was one of several medial winners, including Mark Bifulco Jr., whose aspirations involve aiding in research to cure cancer.

Sumaiya Bhuia, mother of silver medal recipient Mukut Bhuia, of School 81, holds her sleeping son Shayan during the Jesse Ketchum Medal ceremony. (Robert Kirkham/Buffalo News)

Immanuel Jones, another recipient, said his goal is becoming a neurosurgeon. And Sole Witt said whatever success she finds in life will go back to a rule of the house laid down by her mother, Natasha Grant, who tells her children:

Read every day.

That parental standard is familiar to Mukut Bhuia, the silver medalist, who was only 2 when her parents came to America from Bangladesh. Their quest was built on opportunity, on rising above struggle. Years later, on the same day Mukut learned of the Ketchum award, her father picked her up from school.

Mukut climbed into the car and told him about the medal. "It made him so proud," she said, "you could see it in his face."

She was one of several Ketchum winners born in other countries. Baian Waled Almarawi spent much of her childhood in Syria, before her parents — Waled and Alaa — fled the war tearing apart that nation.

Two years ago, when Baian arrived in Buffalo, she could not speak English. The situation quickly changed. "She's amazing," said Molly Eldridge, a teacher at Newcomer Academy, listening as Baian handled herself flawlessly in an interview.

All the recipients of the Jesse Ketchum Medal who attended the citywide ceremony pose for a group photo in the library of the West Hertel Academy. (Robert Kirkham/Buffalo News)

The teenager offered appreciation for the sacrifices made by her parents. After escaping Syria, the family initially went to Egypt, where Baian said refugee children — vulnerable and lacking money or possessions — often received lesser treatment.

“Here it is fair,” Baian said, of Buffalo's city schools. "Here we all are equals."

More than 150 years after the death of Jesse Ketchum, she lives out his driving philosophy. Working each day in a city whose children often faced overwhelming obstacles, Ketchum understood the liberating potential of knowledge and education.

That theme was celebrated Tuesday by assistant superintendent Fatima Morrell and by Greco, the Ketchum historian. He looked upon the crowd of teenagers and younger siblings, of parents and grandparents. Many juggled rides, shifts at work and other obligations in order to show up for the event.

In return, Greco provided them with a larger context. Over the past 147 years, of the millions of students who attended Buffalo schools, only 13,000 — a tiny fraction — managed to take home a Ketchum medal.

“I welcome you to this group of academic champions of this great city of Buffalo, N.Y.," Greco said, speaking to 37 teens who are a part of history and an even bigger part of what comes next.

Sean Kirst is a columnist with The Buffalo News. Email him at skirst@buffnews.com or read more of his work in this archive.

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