Childhood’s end came on a warm summer morning for the Hightstown High School Class of 2021, when the seniors came together for one last time as a class on June 16.
The seniors gathered on the baseball diamond at Arm & Hammer Park in Trenton to mark Hightstown High School’s 106th annual graduation ceremony.
The venue was different – a baseball stadium instead of an indoor basketball court at the CURE Insurance Arena – but it was in person, unlike the virtual graduation of the Class of 2020 because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Senior class president Lizbeth Lopez welcomed the Class of 2021, followed by the presentation of the American flag and the state flag. The flags were brought onto the field by the seniors who will be entering the U.S. Army and U.S. Marine Corps – on active duty or in the reserves – upon graduation.
East Windsor Regional School District administrators, led by Superintendent of Schools Mark Daniels, entered the field along with Hightstown High School faculty and staff.
Then, to the traditional “Pomp and Circumstance,” the seniors filed onto the baseball field – the boys clad in blue gowns and the girls in white gowns – two by two. They looked around, smiling and waving to friends in the stands.
Once the seniors were seated in their socially distanced chairs on the baseball diamond, Hightstown High School Principal Dennis Vinson welcomed the “resilient, extraordinary Hightstown High School Class of 2021. This is your day.”
“When we closed 457 days ago, no one could have predicted the changes we were forced to make. Every aspect of what you thought your senior year would be like was completely different.
“You lost a lot. I couldn’t think of a more challenging time to be a senior,” Vinson said.
He reminded them of what they endured: Zoom classes, wearing masks and time away from their friends.
But one of the hidden blessings of COVID-19 was learning to be resilient – a lesson they took to heart, he said.
“I will leave you with one piece of advice. Follow your heart and follow your passion. Do what you love and good things will happen. No one doubts you are ready to leave your mark on the world, as you did at Hightstown High School,” Vinson said.
Looking back on their four years at Hightstown High, senior class co-presidents Robert Feldstein and Shruti Subramanian said the class’s experiences could best be compared to a mosaic.
“A mosaic is a design of colored tiles that are placed together to create a full image. Each tile in the mosaic is a reflection of what we learned from others and from our shared experiences,” Shruti said.
Part of that mosaic was the unexpected death of Hightstown High School Athletic Director Jim Peto, Shruti said. No one better exemplified passion for their job and for the students than Peto, and his dedication should be a reminder to the class that they may each accomplish their goals, she said.
Social activism was part of the class’s journey – from protests against school shootings to marching against racial injustice and police brutality, Shruti said.
But the mosaic includes more than social activism, Shruti and Robert said. There were also the athletic teams’ accomplishments, and the extracurricular activities – even if some of the extracurricular activities were remote because of the pandemic, they said.
“When the world paused, Hightstown High School taught us to keep moving,” Robert said.
Robert urged his classmates to continue to build their mosaic. The pieces of the mosaic may break, the bonds may shift and the colors may fade, “but who you are and what you become is based on the relationships you build,” he said.
“Healthy relationships with your family and friends will provide you with the security and stability far beyond that of any short-sighted joy,” Robert said. Money, commodities and material wealth are transitory, he said.
Shruti agreed, and said that while the full image tells the story, so does each tile. She told her classmates that as they mature and become wiser, they will understand that not every tile fits or enhances the portrait.
“It is a masterpiece that is constantly in progress. You are never truly finished in creating the mosaic of your life,” Shruti said.
Hightstown High School social studies teacher William Kamps, who was chosen to be the faculty speaker, challenged the seniors to focus on thriving, not surviving – lessons they should have learned as they worked through the COVID-19 pandemic.
“What does surviving versus thriving look like? First, surviving is when we let our circumstances define us and give us purpose. I am thinking how the last year-and-a-half was a reset of the things that we put our identity in,” Kamps said.
For those who took joy and meaning in being an athlete, an actor, a Student Council leader, a musician or just a good student, it was a struggle when those things were taken way from them, he said.
“What does it say when we put our hopes and our identity (into something) that we can be shaken so easily?” Kamps said as he sought to help the students define the difference between surviving and thriving.
Thriving, on the other hand, allows people to find their identity not in things that can be taken away from them, but in their worth and value as individuals, he said.
Thriving cannot be dependent on the circumstances, because “as we learned over the past year, we have only a fraction of control over that. (Thriving) is a confidence in who you are,” Kamps said.
“As you begin to transition to a new and different reality, I hope you will walk confidently, anchored to the truth of who you are and allowing your footprints to take you anywhere.
“May you be a generation that thrives, that chooses to see past your immediate circumstances to see opportunities for gratitude,” Kamps said.
Superintendent of Schools Mark Daniels told the seniors that despite dealing with the “unique hurdles” of the past 15 months, he was confident that they are ready to become contributing adults.
Daniels encouraged the seniors to love and appreciate their families. He also encouraged them to find their passion, trust their instincts and to believe in themselves – but not to be surprised or discouraged if they must make revisions to their plans.
“But no matter what, always take time to help others, and treat them with dignity and respect,” Daniels said.
And then, one by one, the seniors rose from their chairs and walked over to pick up their diplomas – and to join the long line of Hightstown High School alumni.