Childhood’s end came on a warm summer night for the Hightstown High School Class of 2020, but not in the Cure Insurance Arena in Trenton.
The June 18 ceremony came inside their homes on computer screens, as the 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 ceremony.
Nevertheless, it was complete with Edward Elgar’s traditional “Pomp and Circumstance,” random photos of students, and a drone flyover of the Hightstown High School campus to set the tone for the high school’s first-ever remote graduation.
Student Council President Diya Dalia welcomed viewers and said that the virtual ceremony may not be what she and her classmates were hoping for, but the class demonstrated incredible resiliency.
“They say high school goes by in the blink of an eye, but I never really believed it. Now, here we are, one blink later, ready to graduate,” Diya said.
Hightstown High School Principal Dennis Vinson said the Class of 2020 had lost many of the special experiences that make up the senior year in high school, but the class persevered.
What made the Class of 2020 so resilient began when they entered kindergarten, Vinson said. They worked their way up, forming friendships and bonds along the way. They developed relationships that carried them through the next 11 years, he said.
Vinson told the seniors not to forget what happened during the last half of their senior year, when the school buildings were closed and they resorted to remote learning. They should use that experience to make themselves stronger people. They are well prepared for the next chapter in their lives, he said.
An ecstatic and upbeat Angel Agyeman, the Class of 2020 president, greeted her classmates virtually and reminded them that “this is the day we have dreamed about for 12 years.”
Adopting a more serious tone, Angel said the last three months exposed flaws that incapacitated society “like never before.”
The question is, what should be done about those flaws, Angel said. She asked her classmates how they will fix racism, sexism and economic inequality, and how they will get social justice for people with different sexual orientations.
“You must take action. You can’t have a $1 million dream and a minimum wage work ethic. Real change comes with real action. You can’t scream ‘Black lives matter’ and not vote. You can’t complain about the world and not get involved in changing it,” Angel said.
Her parents told her that it is not possible to control what happens, but it is possible to control how one responds to the circumstances, Angel said. When the school buildings were closed to students, they responded with resilience, she said.
Angel called on her classmates to really listen to what others are saying – to really hear their cries for help and then help them.
“Let us dream of a world where there is justice for all. Rosa Parks said, ‘To bring change, you must not be afraid to take the first step. We will fail when we fail to try,'” Angel said. “Get up, get busy, get voting and be part of the change we desire to see.”
Resilience in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic and what it had wrought was the thread that ran through student speaker Ana Chico’s remarks to her classmates.
Ana admitted that when she walked through the halls of Hightstown High School on March 13, she was not prepared to say one last goodbye to her friends. She does not remember the last time that she sat down at the lunch table with her friends, or the last golf match that she played during her junior year.
“We felt robbed of everything we worked so hard for – from a traditional graduation to Wildwood to the last high school musical. We felt hopeless as we stared at our sparkly prom dresses hanging in our closets.
“(But) I feel like we have learned one of the biggest lessons life has to offer – the unpredictability of life. Tomorrow isn’t guaranteed.
“Although many of you may not have your whole life planned out in front of you, that’s totally okay. Life changes and everything works out the way it should in the end,” she said.
Highstown High School physical education teacher Jeffrey Drake, who was chosen by the students as the faculty speaker, told the seniors that they will face challenges over the years – from fear to failure.
They will experience fear throughout their lives, but they can either run away from it or face it and rise above it, Drake said. They stared the COVID-19 pandemic in the eye and conquered it by completing high school without direct contact with their teachers, he said.
“You are all going to fail in life, and it is okay to fail,” Drake said. Failure is not something negative. It can be used as a stepping stone. They can either quit, or get back up and “knock it out of the ballpark,he said.
The students also will be pushed – sometimes in the right direction, and sometimes in the wrong direction. They can push themselves through life – apply for a job, never be discouraged and always look for extra work, he said.
The students also need to be the best versions of themselves, and they need to cherish the people who have helped them along the way, Drake said.
“You may not have had the (senior) year that you wanted, but it will be a year that you will never forget,” Drake said.
Superintendent of Schools Mark Daniels and school board president Ram Ramachandran also wished the students well as they embark on their next adventure.
Daniels said that 30 years ago, he was a graduating high school senior. He thought he had it all figured out – college, a job, a car, a house and a wife and children.
“Sound familiar? It didn’t take long to realize things were not going to be that easy or predictable,” Daniels said. There were challenges along the way.
Daniels advised the seniors to pursue their passion and “dream big” – and come up with a plan to bring it to fruition. But they should not be surprised if they have to make some revisions to those plans, he said.
Ramachandran echoed those thoughts and told the seniors that “just as you began to figure it all out, a global pandemic came out of nowhere.”
Many of the rites of passage became relics of pre-pandemic life, but the seniors persisted and transitioned into a remote world, he said.
“Just know this. It gets better from here,” Ramachandran said.