BAYONNE, NJ - Had this been any other year, graduation ceremonies would have followed the usual pattern, each grammar school celebrating the rite of passage for its students to the high school, and seniors at Bayonne High School preparing to embark on a journey to college or some other way of life.

But the classes of 2020, reaching these academic milestones in the middle of a global health pandemic,  broke from a tradition in many ways and graduations did not occur as expected.

Instead of students gathering in their grammar or high schools the way students in classes for generations before them had, they found themselves taking part in a series of unique graduation ceremonies held outdoors in Stephen Gregg County Park over a three-day period last week, as well as a virtual ceremony that brought together students one last time online.

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Although originally, students taking part in the drive-through graduation ceremonies in the park were not supposed to exit their vehicles, ultimately, cars stopped, students in their gowns got out, took their turn on the stage and received their diploma before reentering their cars and moving on.

Superintendent of Schools John Niesz, who was present for all the graduations for all the schools, pointed out that in some ways students this year got even more attention than in the larger indoor ceremonies of the past. “Students in the future might want this kind of ceremony,” Niesz joked, although he might not be far from the truth.

“This is a difficult time, but we will get through this,” Superintendent Niesz, only in his first year in the position, said in his online speech to the graduates. “The path to excellence is never easy. We've gone through a very difficult time. But I'm sure the class of 2020 will prevail. Although we missed our last semester of school, we are going to prevail.”

Lines of cars moved through park streets decorated with large colored banners and posters bearing the names of all Bayonne schools, a pageantry added to by a stiff breeze off Newark Bay and vehicles decorated with the names of students as well as colored balloons.

“In the past, elementary schools often held their graduations at the same time, so I chose not to go to any because it would seem like I was paying favorites,” Mayor Jimmy Davis said. “But this year, I can be here for all of them.”

“The final year has been very different and one you will never forget, hope it doesn't take away from all the hard work you have put in to get to this point,” he said.  “As you enter the next phase of your life, I hope that you will use the foundations that were built here at Bayonne high school, to lead yourself to be successful with all you do. Please look to challenge yourselves and never settle. The only limit to your achievements will be yourselves.”

In the past, students would have waited in the high school building for the traditional march into the Richard Korpi Ice Rink, where parents and friends would cheer them on from bleachers. This year, many made their way into the park early, posing for photographs with their families and friends, seeing some of their fellow students for the first time since the schools locked down.

In his online address,Valedictorian Arch Banerjee acknowledged both the seriousness of the moment as well as the hardships the Class of 2020 faced. “Our journey through Bayonne High School has come to an end, but commencement connotes beginnings,” he said. “Yet the Valedictorian address by its nature is a farewell address.”

“This pandemic has changed our lives,” he said, mourning the lives of those lost in the community and the impact it has had on the community’s way of life. “As this pandemic fades we will all be faced with a new normal,” he said, predicting that the Class of 2020 will continue to face “unprecedented challenges” but offering no doubt that they can rise to the occasion and persevere

“More than any other, the class of 2020 has experienced conflicted emotions, we yearn for change, yet cling to similarity,” Banerjee said. “While our class yearned for the four years to come to an end, we yearn to return to those halls one more time.”

Banerjee lamented his and his classmates missed prom and the fact that the virtual graduation caused some to feel loneliness during times which are meant to celebrate togetherness.

“These times do not define the Class of 2020,” he said “Our moments of apartness do not define the worth of our achievements. We are defined by shared laughs and endless adventures, our curiosity and our courage.  The circumstances we find ourselves in now are temporary yet the memories and friendships we have made over the last four years are not.”

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