"It really was hard, especially at the start," Bautista said. "When I first got here, I could barely understand anything. I eventually got used to it, but I had to work harder than anyone else. I had to learn the language. That was the first step. I didn't take ESL (English as a Second Language) classes. I took the regular courses because I wanted to learn."
Bautista said that he learned English from two sources - reading and watching television.
"I did everything to improve my English," Bautista said. "I listened to music and I watched a lot of TV. I figured that if I could understand what they were saying on TV, then I could understand anything. It really helped me a lot."
Top of the class
However, no one could have ever dreamed what would have transpired in just three years. Bautista learned English so well that he is among the top students in the Weehawken High School Class of 2007. He has already secured a scholarship to attend Cornell University on a full scholarship to study engineering.
Recently, Bautista was the recipient of several individual awards at the Weehawken High School Academic Awards Night and National Honor Society Induction ceremonies.
The event took place May 4 at Schuetzen Park in North Bergen.
Bautista received three individual awards for being the top student in science, Math League and economics, while receiving another award for his work as a volunteer tutor.
It may be one of the greatest academic success stories in the school's history; a kid who couldn't speak a word of English emerging as a premier student in just three years.
"I didn't expect to receive all those medals," Bautista said. "I don't even know how I did it. I was surprised. I guess it is a great accomplishment. I always liked math and science, so that helped. I am doing better than I could have ever imagined."
Amanda Ward, who will be the valedictorian for the Class of 2007, earned the Academic Award, the top prize of the evening, given to the top senior.
Ward said that she had a good idea she was going to receive the Academic Award, because she received notice a few months ago that she had been elevated to the top spot in the class rankings.
"Even though I knew I was No. 1 in the class, I was still excited to receive the award," said Ward, who will attend Boston College in the fall. "I always take a lot of pride in my academics. It's nice to be recognized for working hard in the classroom."
Not only were the students awarded for their academic excellence and the new members of the National Honor Society sworn in, but Dr. John Ganim, a well respected author and lecturer, was inducted in the school's Academic Hall of Fame.
Ganim, a 1963 graduate of Weehawken High School who currently resides in California, has written 50 scholarly articles and three books about medieval English literature.
Motivation for future graduates
National Honor Society faculty advisor Kate Kitzie said that the annual Academic Awards dinner serves as a motivation for all of the school's students to excel.
"I think it's important for the kids to see the fruits of their labor," Kitzie said. "Not only are they surrounded by their peers, but they also have their parents, the school board and teachers all on hand. To get that kind of recognition enables the younger students to say, `Hey, someday that could be me.' I'm very proud of the students. We had a nice cross section of recipients. You just don't see kids who are academically talented receiving awards. There are awards for culinary arts, the band, and the chess team. Our students always seem to rise to the top of their ability."
Superintendent of Schools Kevin McLellan agreed.
"We have to be able to recognize individual talents," McLellan said. "When I speak to the inductees of the Academic Hall of Fame, they all talk of how they were truly inspired during their days in Weehawken. That's the message each inductee gives to the students. This year's inductee, John Gamin, said that in Weehawken he learned how to learn.
Added McLellan, "It's always very rewarding to see our students get acknowledged for their many years of hard work and perseverance. These are moments that they will keep in their memory banks and treasure them in years to come."
Jim Hague can be reached via e-mail at either OGSMAR@aol.com or email@example.com