Nelson Mandela -- "It always seems impossible until it's done."

BERKELEY HEIGHTS, NJ - Amidst the COVID-19 pandemic and state mandated public gathering restrictions and limitations, Columbia Middle School went ahead with a virtual graduation that was live streamed through the GLHSTV YouTube channel on Wednesday. 

Effort was taken to make the promotion ceremony special for the 231 students in the eighth grade class. Keeping with tradition, the sounds of the tropical steel pan ensemble played throughout. A virtual photo presentation of each graduate was displayed while their names were read by class representatives Gia Ghosh and Arianna Mauri. Rowan Fluharty and Helen Walker led the flag salute.

Sign Up for Berkeley Heights Newsletter
Our newsletter delivers the local news that you can trust.

Principal Frank Geiger congratulated the class and identified it as one of the largest graduating classes to come through Columbia Middle School. Geiger asked to have one more "remote moment" with the students. Along with the vast amount of emails sent, Geiger has been communicating with the students remotely since March 16 via his YouTube  channel "Mr. Geiger's Garage." He has hosted these sessions from his garage where he chats with students and encourages them to keep working hard, he tells stories, and even shows them how to make things in his wood shop.

"Guys, it's about this time during the ceremony that I would normally ask the staff in attendance and Mrs. Acosta to stand and be recognized. -- I can only think of one group of people who have worked as hard, or perhaps even harder than our wonderful staff, all of whom adjusted both personal and professional lives in order to bring us to the successful conclusion of our school year," he said. That "one group" he's referring to is his students. "We all have to agree that your final months at the middle school were certainly the most challenging of your academic career, and may in fact be the most challenging you will face in public education. I've spoken to students who admit they missed the classroom. Every middle school experience has mixed memories and I know not every day was perfect. --- But, I would like you to focus tonight on the things in school that you took for granted." He gave several examples of when a teacher would prompt the student to engage with an encouraging nod or smile. -- "As your principal, I've seen the interactions over your three years that made you feel smart, brought you closer together, made you shine as a momentary leader and helped you grow. And what did these times have in common? The school community. There was just something about being among people that makes life a better experience that makes you know your struggles are not your own." 

He told the class, "you're the right age to consider your impact on others. And here's the secret -- we don't need heroes as much as you think. What we do need is for everyday people like you and me to use common sense when speaking to and interacting with the everyday people that we meet." He went on to say, "Practice doesn't always make it perfect, but practice does make it pretty consistent in everything you do. And every interaction you have, if you take the time to consider your words, consider your actions -- you will find that over time, you will become the person who regularly says the right thing, does the right thing, and someone others can look to as a good example."

He also warned that, "in your world of Instagram, TicTok, online gaming noise and who knows how many messaging apps -- there doesn't really seem to be time enough to stop and consider your words." He said, "Be careful, especially in your world where delete never means it's gone. Your words have been heard, read, recorded, and it's already too late. They are out there. And you can't get them back. Ever."

"So yes, you have a voice. A few weeks ago in our small town we saw 1,000 [+] people march to join voices with millions around the country, so their voices could be heard." He identified two students who organized a group to participate and took action. "I was so pleased to join them and many of you in an online meeting to hear your voices, share concerns and raise questions that we need to first consider, and then we need to answer with action." 

He quoted T.S. Eliot: 

For last year's words belong to last year's language
And next year's words await another voice.
And to make an end is to make a beginning.

Geiger told the students, "Maybe next year, 'his voice' is you. You know what, forget I said that -- make next year's voice, your voice. But remember to practice. Remember to consider what you will say before you speak. Be kind. Reach out and it will feel great."  -- "In closing, let me just add, we all need to be a bit more of what we can be. And maybe a little bit less of what we are. We need to all grow. I have such high hopes for you all. No matter what tomorrow brings, I know you will use your voice to do well for others."

Vyas Dhar provided the Welcome Address and gave a retrospect of his time at Columbia Middle School as a space mission to the moon to explore territories unknown to mankind. "Sixth grade started out with a blast," he said. "Quite literally, my spacecraft had just launched into space. I can still remember the confusion that I experienced on my first day at CMS. Using a lock. Getting to different classes and learning everyone's names seemed impossible at first. However, with repeated practice, I was able to master these skills, and much more."

Dhar used the extended metaphor of the space mission throughout his speech. "We were safely able to land on the moon. Seventh grade consisted of a lot of exploring for me. I was introduced to a new class called English, a new exam called finals. What are those? I thought to myself. Just as an astronaut explores the moon, I touched the moon rock of academics, something that I could never experience back on Earth in seventh grade," he said. --- "I knew it was time to embark on the last leg of my journey -- and the most critical one yet -- eighth grade. I was excited for eighth grade more than I was for any other year. -- My journey during eighth grade specifically was like the Apollo 13 space mission. And on March 9, 2020, the message was sent out, 'Houston, we have a problem.' Berkeley Heights officially reported its first case of COVID-19. The pandemic was rapidly spreading across the country. And as schools closed, both students and teachers were forced to recreate school life at home without a single precedent to guide them." He said, they quickly adapted thanks to the reassuring support of the school leadership, who played a key role in facilitating this transition. "After completing all the requirements, my spacecraft finally made it back on Earth. Of course, my success would not have been possible without the talented engineers 'mission control' guiding me through the entire journey."

"If there's one lesson the unprecedented time has brought to light, it is a value of collective work of virtue that classifies every hard-working person, as a hero. Today, my heroes are right here within my school community. And I am so honored to learn from each one of them," said Dhar. He quoted Nelson Mandela, "It always seems impossible until it's done."

Winnifred Grober gave the Class Address and quoted Mark Twain, "The secret of getting ahead is getting started." She said, "It amazes me how fast time flies like a butterfly whizzing away before you get a chance to look at it closely. But the beauty of it is, once you're through to the other side, you can look back and appreciate how far you've come."

"I think we can all agree that in the beginning of sixth graders, we were completely clueless," she said. "We were staring an alligator in the face right before we were smacked with the first impression, a big bad middle school. --  But as the year went on, I found out it wasn't that bad at all. Just the first steps into a new maturity." In round two --  "I found myself relaxing more in the second year." She said with more familiarity in the middle of everything - "it made us all feel more secure. -- But as we neared the end of our second year, we went out stronger and far more knowledge than we went in. Our interests beginning to take form, creating a sense of independence inside us all." In eighth grade, "We were balanced much better with our academics and could all focus on the interests we've been developing slowly over time," she said. "It had been a tough set of years, but we came out victorious thanks to family, friends, and staff who all pushed us to our limits and made us truly beautiful and successful in the end." Although they each faced their own adversity through the pandemic, she identified a valuable life lesson. "This has taught us that, well, things always change in life. It is how we handle ourselves in those times of change that is important. Always look for the good in others and yourselves and in your circumstances."

Before recommending the eighth grade class for graduation, Superintendent Dr. Melissa Varley addressed the students. While she originally wrote her speech on persevering through this pandemic time, she changed her topic to 'kindness' in light of the recent community engagement on injustice and equality. "There are all types of people in the world. And the differences that make us up -- we're all unique. Let's celebrate those differences, instead of alienating others. I ask you to think before you speak. Think before you post. Take a stand for those who are being mistreated. If you can't take a stand on your own, find someone who will help you -- a superintendent, a teacher, a police officer, a principal, a banker -- anyone," said Dr. Varley. -- "I'm going to also ask of you to stop yourself from joining a rant on social media. Stand up for those who are being mistreated -- stand up for yourself. And as we know, with the uptick of suicides among the young, the old adage 'sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt' no longer is true. All of our words mean something -- whether you're online, or going face to face. Be positive, share, be kind, make a statement. You will find that you will feel so much better building someone up, rather than tearing them down. And another adage, 'Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.'" She closed with saying, "You have the ability to make this world a better place for all races, cultures, sexual orientations and religions, etc. Change begins with us."

Board of Education President Doug Reinstein has a challeng for this eighth grade class. "So Columbia eighth graders, how will you make a difference? I encourage you to do something that will make a difference to someone else's life. Find a way to contribute, whether that's to your family, your sports team, an educational endeavor, nonprofit organization, or maybe even somewhere in the Berkeley Heights community. And do it the absolute best that you can. But today, middle school graduation, with just one small step on your educational journey -- let your high school experience take you on a path of your choosing. Whichever path that might be on behalf of the entire board of education, we wish you the best of luck and whatever you set your sights on, our suggestion is to aim high and learn from as many people as you can along the way."

Robert Nixon, Principal of Gov.Livingston, welcomed the class of 2024 to "the Hill" He said, "You've persevered through a challenging school year, and you have given your parents, teachers, and community a great deal to be proud of. I would also like to welcome the class of 2024 to Governor Livingston High School. We have a great program that we are confident will challenge and inspire you, each and every day. We hope you'll have a great summer, and we look forward to seeing you on the hill in September." 

Special recognition was made to the Columbia Middle School PTO, CMS staff and volunteers who made the event a memorable one including: Michael Skara - Technology Director; Joseph Voorhees - TV Production/film; Kevin Rafferty - Technology/Film; Christopher Colaneri - Director Steel Pan Ensemble; Anne Marie Martis; Debra Reiss and the school's custodians.

On Thursday, Mr. Geiger, Ms. Acosta and some staff members were outside the school to give the 8th grade students the opportunity to say goodbye from a safe distance. (Video credit: Kendra Newhauski)


Editor's note: Send photos of your CMS 8th grade graduates to to be included in photo gallery.