FLEMINGTON, NJ - “Be a positive light for yourself. Be a positive light for others.”

J.P. Case Middle School Principal Bob Castellano dedicated a country song to the graduates of the eighth grade Class of 2020 during their promotion day video Tuesday, as a reminder to always provide a positive mindset during challenging times, in light of the ongoing health crisis.

“Be a Light” by Thomas Rhett was played for part of an approximately 30-minute promotion day video, which included inspiring words from different speakers, and lots of photos of the graduating class.

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The video, released to families at about noontime, acted as a substitute for a traditional in–person ceremony that was not allowed to take place prior to July 6 because of coronavirus-related guidance from Gov. Phil Murphy.

“As we celebrate the achievements of our Class of 2020, of which there are many, I ask our students to take this experience and turn it into a positive change that you will use in your life today or further down the road,” Castellano said. “Remember to keep a positive mindset and be a positive light for others, especially when that light can become hard to see.”

As part of his promotion day ceremony speech, Castellano also summarized the 2019-2020 school year with an iconic quote from Tom Hanks in the iconic movie, “Forest Gump.”

“Life is like a box of chocolates. You never know what you’re going to get,” Castellano said, explaining that no one would have ever imagined class being taught virtually from a distance.

In closing out his speech, Castellano relayed to the class that the one big takeaway from this time apart would be the reminder of the value of relationships formulated in middle school.

The approximately 30-minute video began with drone footage of the school’s campus, and an introduction from Castellano in an empty auditorium.
Attendees of the virtual ceremony were asked to rise for the eighth grade chorus’s singing of the “Star Spangled Banner.” A picture of each chorus member surrounded a picture of an American flag on the screen.

Assistant Principal Peter Sibilia, also in an empty auditorium, introduced the 2020 Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR) Good Citizens Award recipient, Reena Verma, to lead the reciting of the Pledge of Allegiance with her hand placed over her heart in her cap and gown surrounded by American flags.

Graduate Arianna Bellotti provided the Address of Welcome, while wearing her cap and gown.

“It’s funny because in the guidelines for this speech, we were specifically asked to stay away from overused metaphors and similes, for example, ‘Eighth Grade is like a roller coaster,’ with its ups and its downs,” she said. “But the more I thought about it, eighth grade is completely different than a roller coaster.”

She went on to explain why eighth grade is not like a roller coaster, because a person steps onto a roller coaster and knows exactly what is ahead of them.

“You know that there are big drops and when they are coming, however, life – let alone middle school – is nothing like that,” she said. “Going into eighth grade, we didn’t see any of the drops coming. We didn’t know the exact path we’d take, or how big each dip and bump would be. I know we all didn’t see the drops this year had coming for us. Let’s just say it wasn’t your typical year or amusement park ride.”

Like Castellano, she highlighted the importance of the people in the school – like teachers, administrators and guidance counselors – who have created an “amazing environment for all of us,” which may have been taken for granted up until school buildings closed due to the pandemic.

She also noted the many clubs, sports and musical opportunities that allowed the students to learn about themselves, as well as their classmates, and how these opportunities expanded their horizons in preparation for high school.

“Despite the losses we have faced due to the current circumstances, I can confidently say that we have learned the value of everyday encounters and the privilege of being able to sit down in a classroom and learn with other students,” she said.

She noted how the gym teachers reminded the class as seventh graders, “how much one summer can change us.” She acknowledged how it’s true, since last summer, the class has “grown so much and we will continue to grow.”

“One thing they always said was to not let that change affect our kindness and personality,” she said. “As we move on to high school, we can embrace the countless changes ahead of us, and that is a message that we can keep with us no matter what. So as we move forward in whatever kind of metaphor or simile we are living, we can safely say that we will always carry a piece of J.P. Case with us.”

Board vice president Jessica Abbott also congratulated the graduates, despite them not being able to walk the stage to receive their diplomas personally. She also took time to reflect on the value of the people inside the school.

“Do you remember your first day of school?” she said. “You probably thought it was a place built out of walls, floors and ceilings, filled with gyms and auditoriums, libraries and desks, with friends and teachers and everyday routines, but since March, the coronavirus has been quite the teacher. Look where we are now and what we’ve learned. Your class has faced the greatest test of your Flemington-Raritan education with COVID-19.”

She noted that students’ kitchens and bedrooms were transformed into classrooms, while other nontraditional means were used for class discussions and assignments.

“We’ve seen over these past three months that our district is not, in fact, made of concrete and sheetrock, it is actually made with people, parents, families, teachers, administrators, guidance counselors, teaching assistants, secretaries, nurses, librarians, technology team members, bus drivers, cafeteria workers, custodians, security officers, school board members and, most importantly, you,” she said.

She said the district looks forward to watching the class do great things in high school and beyond, and this “invisible web of people” will continue to cheer the class on as they take on new challenges and move on to new places.

“Remember this community is your foundation,” she said. “Build on it. Your next story will rest on the framework that you’ve created at Flemington-Raritan School District. This foundation does not crumble when we cannot enter our classrooms or buildings. It is not broken when we cannot run onto the fields with our sports teams, and it will not go away when you go to high school.”

Superintendent Dr. Kari McGann provided remarks in her doctoral graduation gown, after receiving the prestigious degree from Rider University this year.

“Just like all of you, I’m also graduating this year, and I did not expect it to be like this, just like all of you, but here we are,” she said. “In light of COVID-19, this year’s graduating class has missed out on traditional milestones, but we make the best of it, just like our eighth graders have done all year.”

Castellano then gave his remarks on being a “positive light.” The video proceeded to showcase lots of images of the class with their friends in different settings, like the production of the “The Lion King” while “Be a Light” played by Thomas Rhett.

It served as a reminder to attendees of the virtual ceremony what school looked like before the pandemic hit the world, but also included screen shots of some classes in virtual settings. Scholarship award recipients were also announced, before the names of each student were read aloud, and pictures of each graduate flashed on the screen.

Aum Desai, in his cap and gown, provided the graduates and their families with the farewell address, referencing the lyrics of the song, “Don’t Start Now,” by Dua Lipa, throughout his speech. He said the class changed quite a bit and “did a full 180” ever since they walked through the doors of the middle school two years ago.

“If any of us took a time machine back to 7th grade, I’m sure we’d be in shock as to how different we were back then, up until now, and how our perspectives have changed,” he said. “I’m sure many of us can reflect quite a bit on how different we were last year compared to now. As the song goes, ‘thinking 'bout the way I was,’ all of us were just a bunch of confused, young, nervous and excited seventh graders who had no idea what the future held in store for us.”

Desai reflected on how they became more comfortable over time, but once eighth grade arrived, curiosity was provoked again. Awkward glances were exchanged between one another, and confusion was felt, like a year ago.

“Although the setting was familiar, we had entirely different teachers, new assignments, new friends and even a whole new way of learning,” he said. “There were countless hurdles, and, at times, it felt like one big obstacle course, but thankfully, we got through it. As the song goes, ‘but look at where I ended up.’ Look how far we’ve come, and look how far we’ve been on this special day.”   

He expressed how he will miss the teachers, events, atmosphere and vibes, “but most of all, we will miss the school that supported our growth as individuals and students and (helped us) realize our full potential.”

“But above all else, we can say that we’ve graduated from one of the most important and influential times in our lives,” he added. “Under normal circumstances, I’d ask for us to give each other a round of applause, but because of the current situation of social distancing, virtual claps will have to do.”

Desai noted in the future, the class will “change even more” as they embark on “their biggest journey yet,” known as high school.

He left the class with one final note.

“It’s a fact that when a song ends, the sound is gone,” he said. “However, you remember the words, you remember what the melody was like, you remember how excited you were when you first heard that song, re-listening to the song will never feel the same as your first go round, but the memories of that first listen will flood your heart. To my fellow classmates, I say this: We have just finished listening to our song for the first time. There’s still many more (opportunities to) re-listen in store.”