Childhood’s end came on a warm, summer afternoon for the Lawrence High School Class of 2021, when the seniors came together for one last time as a class on June 16.
The nearly 300 seniors gathered on the baseball diamond at Arm & Hammer Park in Trenton to mark Lawrence High School’s 53rd graduation ceremony.
The venue was different, but it was an in-person graduation, unlike the virtual graduation for the Class of 2020. The annual graduation ceremony at the CURE Insurance Arena moved online last year because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Despite the change in location, some traditions carried on. The Trenton Ancient Order of the Hibernians Pipe Band, its members dressed in kilts, led the way onto the baseball field for the school district’s administrators, school board members, faculty and staff.
As “Pomp and Circumstance” played, the seniors – clad in red gowns with a white stripe on the cuff – walked purposefully onto the baseball field. Their spirits high, the seniors waved to family and friends in the stands. Some gave a “thumbs up” sign and others blew a kiss. One senior carried a helium “congratulations” balloon.
Once her classmates had settled into their seats, class President Nikki Vugumudi welcomed her fellow students, their families and friends.
“It seems like just yesterday, we were all lost in the hallways of Lawrence High School, getting introduced to the foreign sport of ‘wolleyball’ and sharing our struggles caused by freshman year English. Now, we stand here experiencing an event that we have waited for our entire lives,” Nikki said.
Nikki recounted some of the class’s successes – taking home sports titles at the regional and state levels, multiple theatrical plays and the high academic standards that are just the beginning of the class’s potential.
“And today, we stand here victorious – ready to embark on this next chapter of our lives, whether that entails college, trade school, the armed forces or wherever life may take you,” Nikki said.
Lawrence High School Principal David Adam offered some encouraging words to the seniors, saying he could scarcely have imagined how their world and the school would change when they entered high school as freshmen.
The class stood up against school violence, and against racism and discrimination. They identified the wrongs that needed to be corrected, and they also faced a worldwide health crisis in COVID-19, Adam said.
The class survived virtual learning, hybrid learning, Zoom, contact tracing, social distancing “and all of the other new vocabulary words that have recently entered into our lexicon. These are no small feats over the past four years,” he said.
“You all have grown and matured so much over these four years that you are more ready than previous generations to leave the high school nest. You are prepared to make your own new and improved nests out in the world,” Adam said.
Co-salutatorians Riddi Bharj and Lina Chihoub – the seniors who tied for the second-highest academic rank in the graduating class – thanked their parents and sibling for helping them achieve their goals and for their constant support.
Quoting the last lines of Robert Frost’s poem called “The Road Not Taken” – “Two roads diverged in a wood and I took the one less traveled, and that has made all the difference” – sums up the Class of 2021’s experiences, Riddi and Lina said.
“We are leaving Lawrence High School as better people than when we entered it, and that’s because just like this traveler, we had the courage to go down new paths during our time here,” Lina said.
Maybe it was trying out for a new sport, or sitting at a different lunch table or taking a challenging course and earning an “A” grade. It could have been joining an intimidating club and discovering a dream career, Lina said.
“This year, in a way, we were actually forced to take the road less traveled to reach the end of our high school career (because of the pandemic). We lost the traditional senior year experience and encountered many ‘firsts’ – virtual learning, canceled extracurriculars, meeting with friends on Zoom,” Riddhi said.
“But the fact that we are sitting here today with our respective accomplishments proves to us that we were still able to succeed by taking another, less taken path. It provided us with firsthand exposure to the realization that there is not only one path to a particular goal,” Riddhi said.
Having lost nearly two years of their traditional high school experience because of the pandemic was a wakeup call to cherish the people, clubs, sports and classes that made Lawrence High School so special, they said. Classmates should continue to look for the silver lining in an unexpected experience.
“There truly is beauty in the road not taken,” Lina said.
Class valedictorian Arjun Agarwal – the senior who ranked first in the class academically – agreed that the COVID-19 pandemic ensured that the class would not have a normal senior year. They were disconnected from their friends and teachers, and they were clearly not ready for the unprecedented changes in their young lives, he said.
“You know, a few weeks ago, my dad gave me this book called ‘Life’s Little Instruction Book.’ It’s a compilation of tips written in the 1990s by a father to his son who was heading off to college,” Arjun said.
One of those tips – “Remember that life’s big changes rarely give advance warning” – is timely, even though it was written more than 20 years ago, he said. That reminder still holds true. The reality is that big and unexpected changes are inevitable.
“While we may never want go let go of adolescence, we never want to change out of these gowns and caps, never want to let go of these days, never want to move away from friends and families, before we know it we will be changing into new uniforms and taking on new roles,” Arjun said.
“A mysterious, gray future full of unexpected changes lies ahead of us and if I’m being honest, it scares me. How am I going to navigate the pressures and stresses of college? How am I going to find my place in this world? How am I going to deal with unexpected change,” he said.
But the class has learned the answer to the overarching question of change and how to handle it, making the best of it when they could not return to school, he said. They became Zoom experts and found time to have lunch. They picked up a new hobby and rekindled old friendships, he said.
Thinking back to “Life’s Little Instruction Book,” it all makes sense, Arjun said.
“If life’s big changes did give us advance warning, they just wouldn’t be as big. They wouldn’t give us the chance to be creative. So while many people might tell you to expect change, I say let change do its thing,” he said.
“Change will come when it wants to. It won’t give us advance warning, but when it does, we’ll be ready to own it,” Arjun said.
School board member JoAnn Groeger, speaking on behalf of the school board, said the class has demonstrated flexibility and true grit. The class set its own pace for learning, in spite of never experiencing a Zoom lesson and it thrived, she said.
“You have become independent learners that have had to think outside of the box, or in this case, outside of the nest. Share your gifts and learn to listen more than you speak, so you will continue to be grow and be open-minded. You are our future,” Groeger said.
Then, one by one, the long line of seniors walked up to receive their diplomas – alternately fist-bumping Adam and fist-bumping Superintendent Ross Kasun and school board president Kevin Van Hise.
“That’s it, we’re done,” Adam said when the last senior fist-bumped him as the Class of 2021 joined the ranks of Lawrence High School alumni.