DENVILLE, NJ -- More than 700 people tuned in for the virtual graduation ceremony of Morris Knolls High School's 392 seniors on June 23.

“If there is one thing about Morris Knolls that I will remember for years to come, it's the people,” said 17-year-old valedictorian Helen Cedzidlo, from Denville, remembering the good times in the last four years.

“Knolls just wouldn’t be the same without all of my amazing teachers, friends, and coaches in it. It’s the little things, like going to hockey games with my friends, being cheered on by my teammates at a fencing tournament, and painting murals in the hallway with my classmates, that have made high school a truly special experience for me. If I had to pick a favorite memory, it would probably be displaying my artwork in the AP Art Show my sophomore and junior years. Getting to see the culmination of me and my classmates’ hard work after years of making art together has truly been a rewarding experience.”

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Although many seniors felt they had missed out on traditional milestones like prom due to the COVID-19 pandemic, many seniors were grateful to at least have a virtual graduation ceremony.

In her speech, valedictorian Cedzidlo encouraged her fellow seniors to use these difficult times as an inspiration.

“Before I begin, I’d like to take a moment to thank my teachers, coaches and friends who have supported me over the past four years,” said Cedzidlo, in her speech to the Class of 2020.

“You have all helped me into the person I am today, and for that, I am incredibly grateful. I would also like to thank the unsung heroes of Morris Knolls: our secretaries, guidance counselors, and custodians. Our high school would not be able to run without all of their hard work. Finally, I would like to thank my parents for constantly supporting me throughout these wonderful, stressful, and slightly unconventional four years of high school.”

“Speaking of my parents, before COVID-19 turned our world upside down, I liked to ask my parents about their thoughts on what it was like to live through the historical events that I could only read about in my textbooks. I would ask my dad how it felt to look at the TV screen and watch the first man step on the moon. I wondered when it would be my generation’s turn to live through history. What moment, I wondered, will we remember for decades to come?”

“Well, that moment has come, but unfortunately, our historical moment is not nearly as awe-inspiring as watching Neil Armstrong make one giant leap for mankind. I never would have guessed that ‘living through a historical moment’ would mean watching over 100,000 Americans die of a mysterious disease, being ordered to stay at home when possible, and needing to wear a mask to go to the grocery store.”

“To keep our spirits up, we’ve made jokes about Zoom, taking AP exams in our pajamas, and how, this is definitely the sort of thing that’ll be on the APUSH [AP U.S. History] exam in 2040. And even though these are jokes, there is truth behind them. Long after the number of new cases drops and a vaccine is finally developed, our world is never going to be the same.”

“No one is going to be able to hear the phrase ‘Class of 2020’ again and not think of the way that the coronavirus robbed us of what should have been one of the most exciting times of our lives. Yes, we’re going to be linked to this event for the rest of our lives, but defined by it? No. The Class of 2020 didn’t spend the last four years dedicating ourselves to our talents, our community, and the causes we care about just to have our experiences watered down to what we have lost in our senior year.”

“But I would like to take a minute to recognize some of these losses we have seen. We lost our prom. We lost a traditional graduation. We lost a chance to properly say goodbye to our friends and teachers before we all go our separate ways. Unfortunately, many of us have even lost loved ones to COVID-19.”

“It is important to mourn these losses, but I don’t want to let these dark times overshadow the moments we were able to share together. I am constantly inspired by what you all have achieved at Morris Knolls. I could say that you all are going to achieve amazing things one day, but you already have. You have been leaders of the community, fundraising for those in need, organizing 5Ks, and volunteering at hospitals. You have painted murals and brought musicals and plays to life. You have committed yourselves to your athletics, shown incredible teamwork, and won state championships. You have excelled academically and been accepted into some incredible institutions. And just because you do not have the ideal graduation ceremony to celebrate these achievements, that does not make them any less remarkable or noteworthy.”

“This pandemic did not make you mature and independent and resilient. You were all of these things before the pandemic, and you will continue to be these things long after it is over. With the talent and the ingenuity, you all have shown over my time in high school with you, I am confident that this class is going to be very successful.”

“However, I hope that we as a class view success a little differently than previous generations have. I hope we don’t view success simply as becoming famous, or rich, or powerful. If we are to learn anything from difficult times such as these, where we see essential workers, who need our support more than ever, laboring away to ensure that we still have the resources we need, it’s that success doesn’t just mean improving your own life: it means improving the lives of others as well. No matter how we all choose to be successful, whether that is by creating a business, making artwork, or starting a family, I hope we don’t lose sight of the importance of making the world better for all races, religions, and identities, not just for ourselves.”

“Let me wrap this up, as I am sure that the last thing many of you want to do right now during the beautiful month of June is stare at a screen and listen to a 17-year-old lecture you. So, let me leave you with this: take what you have learned from these hardships, and use those lessons to improve your communities. I would say, ‘create a world in which the next generation won’t ever have to live through an event as bad as COVID-19,’ but if these times have proven anything, sometimes, tough times are inevitable. However, I have faith that this generation will help reshape the world so that when the next disaster does strike, we will be better prepared to handle it.”

“Class of 2020, if we continue to dedicate ourselves to the causes we are passionate about the way we dedicated ourselves to our lives here at Knolls, I am confident that this class of graduating seniors will be remembered for so much more than just 'the kids who lived through COVID-19.' Thank you so much for a wonderful four years.”

Cedzidlo plans to attend Tufts University to study biology and art and perhaps become a biomedical researcher.

Michael Scornavacca, from Denville, is the class salutatorian. He will be attending Princeton University in the fall.

From June 29 to July 1, a small staging area will be available at the high school for graduates and their families to take graduation pictures. Also, on July 15, at 10:00 a.m., Morris Knolls intends to hold a live in-person graduation ceremony at the school in accordance with state social distancing guidelines.

 

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