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BERKELEY HEIGHTS, NJ - The 269 students of the Class of 2020 received their diplomas and were celebrated in two separate in-person morning ceremonies last week at the 60th Commencement of Gov. Livingston High School.
Tradition runs high in Highlander Country, and the Board of Education and school administration did their best to provide the students a graduation to complete their high school memories before they move on to the next chapter of their lives. It will stand out as a unique graduation like no other due to the ongoing coronavirus restrictions mandated by the Governor's executive order.
"We could not imagine sending you off without celebrating this amazing milestone. I am so pleased that we have been able to come together and celebrate you and your accomplishments in person," said Dr. Melissa Varley, Superintendent of Schools, in a prerecorded message. She was unable to attend her first graduation as Superintendent of Berkeley Heights Schools due to her need to quarantine after traveling.
The parents in attendance stood as "Highlander Cathedral" was heard on the sound system as their graduates proceeded down Highlander Way and onto the field to begin the in-person graduation ceremony.
Student Council President Sophia Zarrelli led the Pledge of Allegiance and Class President Maycee Campano sang the national anthem. Campano also presented the 2020 Senior Class Gift of planting a tree on the GL campus. "Recently, GLHS has become the first high school in New Jersey that is also a National Arboretum. This tree will represent the Class of 2020 on this campus and be a symbol of the strength the Class of 2020 demonstrated through these very trying times," said Campano.
Since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Class of 2020 has been dealt a heavy dose of disappointment. Dr. Varley said, "COVID-19 has shown us how fragile the tranquility of our everyday lives can be. It has shown us the preciousness of normalcy. It has thrown into stark disbelief the inequality and injustice experienced by so many of our fellow citizens. But, it has also shown us the heroism of the human spirit, the potential of love to redeem ourselves and others, and the power of a collective action. COVID-19 has changed our world forever. But it is within your grasp, to help forge a better future years from now. I hope you can look back on these difficult times, and know that you held onto unchanging principles of respect, dignity, hope, and perseverance, and they helped you make history."
Principal Robert Nixon also recognized the students' ability to rise above this adversity and persevere. "The Class of 2020 has pushed itself to achieve at unprecedented levels," he said. "They are smart. They are athletic, they are talented, and they are involved. However, perhaps most importantly, they have set the bar high for future generations of Highlanders to live up to."
When Sam Bass gave his graduation remarks, he didn't want to relive the last four months. He said, we lived it, and we don't want to relive it. -- He congratulated the class for graduating and making it through one of the most difficult situations in their life. "I would like to offer some insight on our less than ideal situation when school was officially canceled for the year. I was devastated. It felt as though someone had torn out the final pages on my childhood," he said. -- "I thought that I had been cheated out of what every senior deserves, which is a fun year, with little work and a lot of memories, especially for me, as I was getting ready for a special season on the baseball field. I was upset. And frankly, a little confused. Why us? --- My final pages were torn out, but pages in my book still remained. I still have great memories, and bonds that will last a lifetime. I have made my closest friends in high school from Berkeley Heights and Mountainside."
Bass reminded his classmates, "We were built for this. A lot of us were born into the New York area right after 9/11. The country was tense, confused, and scared, but we were raised. And we prevailed. The COVID-19 pandemic can be described using the same adjectives, but we will prevail. And we will come out stronger. -- We are the strongest class in the history of GL, this setback will only drive us to work harder and come out on top," he said.
He inspired his classmates with a story of one of the finest men he's ever known. -- That man was John Hopeck, the father of classmate Peyton Hopeck. He "always put others before himself, whether on or off the field. He had a contagious smile and always knew how to make anyone feel better. --- He made the world a better place by bringing people together and making sure they were okay before he was. Mr. Hopeck was battling his second stint of cancer when I turned 13. In the middle of treatments, he made sure to come to my Bar Mitzvah. I know he did not know how important that was to me. But seeing his face in a crowd of people giving me a thumbs up, eased my nerves and made me incredibly happy. I believe everyone is put on Earth with the purpose to make it a better place. And I recommend you all to follow suit today by making others happy. Even the slightest act of kindness can travel further than you will ever realize. On that note, I'd like to give thanks," he said.
Bass ended his remarks with a song lyric from "Puff the Magic Dragon." A dragon lives forever but not so little boys. "The meaning is that eventually everyone outgrows the imaginary dragon in their minds as they outgrow being a little boy or girl, and they grow up. Although it seemed like this happened too fast for us, always find the child within you, and always cherish the moments you have, because as we learned the hard way, it can be taken away from us in the blink of an eye. But that will never stop us because together we can make the world a better place no matter what comes in the way. Good luck to the Class of 2020. It really has been a pleasure to learn and make memories. I can't wait to see what the future holds for each and every one of us, see what challenge we meet next Class of 2020. We can do anything."
Christopher Rampaul-Pino also left a message for his classmates. "We have the chance to take on the world and to find and pursue our passions, to quote unquote, leave a legacy." When preparing his speech, he said he turned to Google and YouTube. They suggest ending a speech with a challenge to improve themselves as they embark on the next chapter of their lives, he said. "This makes no sense to me for two reasons. Reason number one -- when I look at our class, I see future professional athletes and a potential Olympic star, future politicians, future doctors, lawyers, engineers, teachers, musicians. I could go on and on all day. Reason number two -- COVID-19. We've been to hell and back with remote learning quarantine -- and just the canceling of literally our entire lives. All in all, this is hands down one of the most gifted, one of the most accomplished, and one of the most determined classes ever. [So,] to say that we should prove ourselves and try to be better in the future is an insult to our current selves, our memory, and our legacy. We have already done so much, and we should remember and honor our work. Graduates, rather than leave you all with a challenge, I instead leave you all the declaration, a class mantra -- remember as you move on to the next chapter of your life -- as you have been, so you will be; as you have been strong, so you will continue to have mental and physical toughness in all situations and problems that you face; as you have been a pioneer, so you will continue to be a leader, who is a guiding light for others to follow; as you have been clever, so you will continue to be an intellectual thinker who solves problems and comes up with outside the box solutions to get things done. Here at GL we have all thrived and enjoyed nothing but absolute success. And I know that in the future we will continue to shape and improve our society and the people around us for the better. The GL class of 2020 will make its mark in history and probably change the world. And I can only imagine what kinds of accomplishments this class will produce, not just in the near future, but for the decades to come. It's been a wild ride these past four years, but I've enjoyed every second of it wouldn't have wanted it any other way. Thank you for everything. #GLforever."
During Nixon's remarks, he acknowledged his staff, the administration and groundskeepers. "This year presented challenges, unlike any other, and their effort was nothing short of amazing," he said. "I am extremely lucky to have this incredible group of professionals to work with."
For the students, Nixon recognized their academic success. "During the midst of a global pandemic, more students than ever before in a single year at GL participated in AP exams. Several members of this class also boasted perfect SAT or ACT scores, our Consumer Bowl team continued their dominance over Union County by bring home the title once again, our theater students tackled sensitive subject matter when they presented 'The Incomplete Life & Random Death of Molly Denholtz' this past fall." He continued, "In an effort to give back to their school and community, TREND presented one of the most memorable Days of Realization events in recent memory, while other students did their part in making sandwiches for the Market Street Pantry. Athletically, the Highlanders won division championships in boys cross country, girls soccer, and girls basketball. They celebrated county and district champions in wrestling. And, once again, dominated the girls indoor track circuit. I would also be remiss if I did not recognize that we have in this class, a three time New Jersey Gatorade girls track Athlete of the Year in Victoria Vanriele."
"Perhaps most impressively while in the midst of a global pandemic, students from our school banded together to stand up for what is right and took on the fight against social injustice right here on their own doorstep. Student leaders along with our Social Activism Club and SAGA Clubs worked diligently to share their important message with students, staff, administration and community leaders. These students are very special," he said. "The class of 2020 is and always will be special. This class has demonstrated great persistence and perseverance, through the most 2challenging of times. This toughness and these core values will be tested now that the Class of 2020 will leave our campus and our communities as they enter the world."
Nixon provided this lasting teaching moment to the students, "Consider your approach and continue to persist and demonstrate grit as you navigate through a very challenging world. Graduates, you are ready to take on this challenge. You have shown us all that you are resilient and stronger than you know. We are extremely proud of you and wish you the best in all your future endeavors. Please remember that you are always Highlanders and your school will always be here for you. We look forward to seeing how each of you will go forward and make the world a better place. We're counting on you. Congratulations to the Class of 2020," said Nixon.
Board of Education president Doug Reinstein also recognized seniors' enormous resilience. "You have navigated unchartered territories. --- On the contrary, you rose to the occasion. -- Simply put, the greatest challenges became the greatest opportunities for this Class of 2020 -- you persevered."
With the reading of the names, the turning of the tassel and a surprise fireworks display by Garden State Fireworks thanks to the Santore family, this Class of 2020 is one for the history books.
Congratulations to the graduates of the Gov. Livingston Class of 2020!