Speeches during Princeton High School virtual graduation express lessons learned

Childhood’s end came on a warm summer night for the Class of 2020, but not on the front lawn of Princeton High School.

The June 16 ceremony came inside their homes on computer screens, as the 353 seniors and their families watched the school’s virtual graduation ceremony. It was filmed over several days, making up for the lack of the customary in-person graduation.

Nevertheless, it was complete with Edward Elgar’s traditional “Pomp and Circumstance,” random photos of students and a drone flyover of the Princeton High School campus to set the tone for the school’s first-ever remote graduation.

Senior Class President Spencer Katz welcomed viewers to Princeton High School’s 92nd graduation ceremony, followed by student speakers who focused on themes such as community and achievement.

Taking the theme of community to heart, senior Eva Petrone said her grandfather, Jack Petrone, graduated from Princeton High School in 1945 and her grandmother, Jean Petrone, graduated in 1947.

Eva’s grandfather was a police officer who rose to become the police chief of the former Princeton Township Police Department in the early 1980s. He always emphasized family and friends, and made sure the community was safe, Eva said.

“He talked about how family and friends are so important, and how you should always cherish the people in your life. I took that to heart,” Eva said.

Princeton High School is a community, and “if you are lucky enough, you find a group of people who make you love, laugh and smile. We find a community among those people,” she said.

Spending so much time apart from her friends while the school transitioned to remote learning because of COVID-19, “it really makes us realize just how much we should value the time we have together. High school goes by fast,” Eva said.

While Eva thanked the high school staff, coaches, family, friends and her parents and brothers for their support, she offered a special thanks to her grandparents.

“I would especially like to thank that couple that fell in love and started their lives here all those years ago, and for showing my cousins and my brothers and I what community is all about,” Eva said.

Senior Ben Quainton said he had been asked to speak about achievement, which he admitted had confused him somewhat. He said that if he had been asked to speak on it as a freshman, his remarks would have been different.

As a freshman, he was “gung ho” and excited about trying out the many clubs and activities at Princeton High School, reeling off a long list that ranged from The Tower student newspaper to sports.

Fast forward to being a rising senior, Ben said he was heavily involved in clubs and extracurricular activities while also carrying an intense academic course load.

“On paper, everything is great. I achieved all I wanted to achieve and I was ready to face the next checklist on the high school journey – college applications,” Ben said.

But the other side of the story was not so pretty, Ben said. He was depressed and anxious, and often cried himself to sleep. He said he felt “incredibly alone and scared. I was barely hanging on.”

Through therapy, Ben realized that one major source of suffering was the thought that he was not good enough. He was motivated to succeed not for its own sake, but out of fear. He became addicted to achieving and the validation and superficial accolades that accompany it.

Modern American culture glorifies competition, ambition and achievement, he said. It is a pattern that is prevalent at Princeton High School, and he fell into the rat race to achieve. But he decided to give up many activities and to let go.

Given all that he has learned about himself and life, Ben said his parting advice to his classmates is simple: “Do not live your life as a self-centered achievement checklist.” All of his classmates will achieve something in their lives, and it is important to be grounded, he said.

Princeton High School Principal Jessica Baxter, presiding over her first graduation ceremony as principal, thanked the parents for entrusting their children to Princeton High School and its staff.

She told the parents that she is most proud of her students for the kindness and compassion that they have shown to her and to others, and not for their test scores or rankings or championships.

To the seniors, Baxter said she was worried about how she would handle her first high school graduation ceremony as the principal. The events since March 16, when the district shifted to remote learning, made her realize how “silly” it was to worry about it.

“I realize how silly and wasteful that worry was. I wish I could have that worry back. It is trivial in light of what we are facing today,” Baxter said, referring to COVID-19 and the racial unrest that society is dealing with now.

Baxter encouraged the seniors to focus on the present, and to be thoughtful about their next steps. She advised them to “look ahead of you as an opportunity. Let’s not worry our lives away.”

While June 16 marked the graduation of the Class of 2020, it also marks his own graduation, Steve Cochrane, the superintendent of schools, told the seniors. That’s because he is “graduating” to retirement in two weeks, capping a 40-year career in education, he said.

“My last act as superintendent is to bestow on you your diplomas, and a few words of wisdom. So here are those words – life is a team sport,” Cochrane said.

He asked the seniors to think of their most meaningful moments in high school, and he said he could guarantee they were spent with other people – winning a game, performing in a play, feeding the hungry, leading a protest.

They may be asked about their grade point average or their Advanced Placement courses or athletic accomplishments, but success is what they do together and not what they do as individuals, Cochrane said. It is all part of being connected, he said.

Cochrane told the seniors that when he left a deanship at Princeton University to become an elementary school teacher, he was inspired by Robert Fulgham’s poem, entitled “All I Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten.” It seems appropriate to conclude with a few stanzas from the poem, he said.

“All I really need to know about how to live and what to do and how to be I learned in kindergarten. Wisdom was not at the top of the graduate-school mountain, but there is the sandpile,” Cochrane said, quoting the poem.

“These are the things I learned. Share everything. Play fair. Don’t hit people. Put things back where you found them. Clean up your own mess. Don’t take things that aren’t yours. Say you’re sorry when you hurt somebody.

“Wash your hands before you eat. Take a nap every afternoon. And when you go out into the world, watch out for traffic, hold hands and stick together. Apply it to your family life, your work, your government or your world and it still holds true. When you go out into the world, it is best to hold hands and stick together,” Cochrane said.