SOUTH PLAINFIELD – The South Plainfield High School (SPHS) Graduation took place on July 8 on Frank R. Jost Field and looked very different this year than in years past.  The traditional SPHS band and chorus performances welcoming the graduating class onto the field for the last time as South Plainfield students, was not possible.  Speeches echoed into empty bleachers that would normally be packed with family and friends.  To limit contact, diplomas were not distributed during the ceremony, handshakes were not allowed, and hugs of congratulations were also discouraged as everyone stayed six feet apart.  In order to adhere to outdoor crowd limits and guidelines, the class was divided alphabetically into two groups of 120, one ceremony taking place at 9a.m. and the other at noon.  

Most SPHS students, however, were not focused on what they were missing, they focused on what they had and their gratitude for a school district bound and determined to honor them in-person for their accomplishments.  The high school graduation ceremony, the rite of passage that students work for their entire lives, almost did not happen this year.  

“No one would have forecasted in November that we would have been here today with this virtual distance learning and the way things still are in the state of New Jersey,” Principal Robert Diehl said.  “Everyone’s adaptability and perseverance all came together, and we're able to celebrate today.”

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Students were able to choose two people to accompany them onto the field and sit in chairs of three while family members and friends watched from home via live stream the South Plainfield Board of Education website.  As Superintendent Noreen Lishak pointed out when she addressed the class, they each had the two most important people in their lives by their sides.  

“The two people next to you will always be there for you in person and in spirit,” Lishak said.  “It’s not a coincidence that they are at your side today.  They have always been at your side and as you move on to the next phase in life, they will be there for you too.  Say, thank you, because you know you have their strength and their love to rely on.”  

Face masks could not conceal the smiles beneath them as the class who thought this day would not be possible, experienced a graduation like no other.

“I feel amazing.  I feel like I’ve been working all this time just to graduate and I’m finally here,” Alexx White said.  “We didn’t really think that it would happen, but we’re here!”

“It’s been a rollercoaster, but feels really nice to be here,” April Nguyen said.  “I didn’t expect to feel this overwhelming sense of nostalgia.  This is probably the last time I’m going to be seeing these people and it’s nice to be able to take in their faces one last time.”

The Class of 2020 has emerged as pioneers in a world of change and uncertainty, able to absorb disappointment and move forward armed with the ability to rise above.  

“This class will always be an extraordinary class because they were the first class to complete the requirements for a high school diploma through virtual assistance work,” Diehl said.  “We don't know if it will be the last class to do that, but they will always have the distinction of being the first.  When we had to leave the building, and the classrooms were suddenly in their homes.  The kids persevered, and they adapted.”  

Diehl says the district was prepared to go online and do virtual learning.  This school year was coincidentally the first year of a one-to-one initiative where every high school student was given a Chromebook in September 2019 that they used during class and for homework.  

“The heartbreaking part is the activities that we weren’t able to complete,” Diehl said.  “Our high school musical, which is always fantastic and a big high point in the town of South Plainfield was a week away from opening night when we closed the school.  With Spring sports, students practiced and did drills, but the competition that every high school athlete lives for, they weren’t able to have.”

Although the year came with disappointments, the Class of 2020 proved resilient and expressed gratitude above all.

“This is an unforgettable experience and there no words to describe this experience, especially under these circumstances, especially during this pandemic,” Kevin Veliz said.  “I can’t thank everyone enough for doing this and making this possible.”

“It’s kind of surreal being here because a lot of times we weren’t sure what was going to happen.  It changed day to day and week to week,” Salutatorian Liesl Co said.  “I’m really thankful that we got to have this experience of graduating together in person even though it may not have been the way it is usually.  It’s very unique to this class this year.”

Attendees of the ceremony included district administrators, board of education members, nurses, and members of the South Plainfield Police Department. Everyone adhered to social distancing rules by wearing masks and maintaining a minimal distance of six feet from other graduates and guests.  Temperature checks at the gate assured that anyone with a temperature that exceeded 100.4 degrees was not given access to the event. 

As the pre-recorded melody of “Pomp & Circumstance” filled the air, students walked onto the field in procession with the two people they had chosen to be at their sides.  When everyone was seated, Diehl addressed those gathered.

“Congratulations and thank you.  Those words are spoken at every graduation,” Diehl said.  “But this year, those words mean more…The Class of 2020 deserves every bit of those traditional congratulatory remarks and more.  The parents, staff and support deserve every bit of the thank yous because this year is unlike any other year any of us have ever seen.”  

Diehl explained that graduating during the unprecedented challenges of a virtual education sets the class apart as the first class to accomplish such a feat.

“We learned that the world we live in can change unexpectedly and quickly,” Diehl said.  “Your homes became your classrooms.  Uncertainty was with us every day, but you persevered, and you adapted.  Today we celebrate that and celebrate you… Class of 2020, I’m going to miss you, but I am comforted in the belief that you are all in a position to be very successful.  You are today and will always be an exceptional class.  I can picture each and every one of you being in a difficult situation and saying to yourself.  I can handle this, I’m from the class of 2020.  We’re so proud of you. Congratulations!”

As everyone stood, a pre-recorded version of the National Anthem was played.  SPHS students who performed the song were:  Chase Atkinson, Amanda Bermo, Justin Billich, Nicole Calavetta, Kelly Gorman, Patrick Joyner, Theresa Lanzetta and Samantha Zelek.  

Lishak then addressed the students reminding them of their strength and to look at the positive aspects of life, a time to express gratitude and appreciate the good among what appears bad.

“Wow, what can I say, 2020 has been some year, and I don't mean that in a bad way, I mean 2020 gave us all the opportunity to learn the importance of a person’s perspective in life,” Lishak said.  “Don’t get me wrong, this pandemic and all it brought with it has been devastating and if I could wave a magic wand and take it away, I would, but life doesn’t work that way.  So your perspective living through this will make all the difference for you now and in all the years to come.”  

“Instead of thinking, it was just awful staying home, I couldn’t hang out with my friends every day, say thank you for allowing me to spend time really talking with my friends without so many distractions,” Lishak said.   “I know them even better now and I found out I like them even more.  Instead of thinking my Spring sports season was lost, say thank you for allowing me the opportunity to rely on the discipline and words of my coaches.  Instead of thinking, I didn’t get to graduate on the last day of school, say thank you for a July graduation because today, I am able to have the two most important people in my life with me on the field.”

Assistant Superintendent Mary Flora Malyska joined Lishak in representing the school district at the event along with South Plainfield Board of Education (SPBOE) members Debbie Boyle, Tommy Cassio, Sharon Miller and Bill Seesselberg.  SPBOE President Douglas Chapman spoke on behalf of the district.  

“What you have accomplished in the last several months is something nobody has been able to go through before and you did it with tenacity, with grit, with enthusiasm,” Chapman said.  “You overcame, you came together, and you did a wonderful job. And you’ll forever have that common bond with each other as you move forward.”

Chapman explained that life is a trilogy of three books with the first chapter closing with high school graduation.  Moving into the second chapter, Chapman explained, it up to the graduates to pursue their dreams and achieve their goals.

“You have to understand that whatever it is in the world that you want to accomplish, it’s up to you,” Chapman said.  “Opportunities that have never been seen by any generation before.  The Digital Age has created opportunities that did not exist before.  There opportunities for you all to get out there and to make a huge difference in this world and to accomplish anything that you want to accomplish.  The only thing that can hold you back, is yourself.  You can get out there and accomplish everything that you want to do and anything that you want to do and be a success in life…Go out there and live a great story.”

Chapman closed encouraging the students to appreciate the diversity within the community.  

“It really is a spectacular community that we have here and the diversity that we have is something very special,” Chapman said.  “Diversity is awesome.  Nobody’s the same.  Nobody looks the same, nobody acts the same, and nobody thinks the same…Embrace the diversity, be kind, be thoughtful, be mindful, think of other people, but don’t forget about yourself.  Use your tenacity, use your grit, use everything that you’ve developed to go forward and make a difference in this world.  Be a difference maker, accomplish the things you want to accomplish, and you’ll have the life that you want to have and enjoy it.  I wish you all the best and congratulations on graduating the SPHS Class of 2020!”

During the first graduation ceremony, Salutatorian Liesl Co, Senior Class President Braedon Dobrynio and Student Council President Obinna Ibeku spoke.

“Thank you all for celebrating this milestone with us,” Co said.  “The world has transformed, and we will all emerge from this as changed people.  The class of 2020 is, and has always been, at the forefront of the world’s change.  We came into the world just before or just after 9-11.  We’ve seen new administrations, recessions and natural disasters.  We’ve spoken out against police brutality, gun violence and structural racism nationally and in our local communities.  Now we face a pandemic that has only underscored the inequities in our world.  But as my mother told me, change is the only constant in this life.  It keeps us from stagnating into indifference, from settling into complacency.  We are not powerless against change.”  

Co explained that they live in the Age of the Influencer and how important their impact is on the world.  

“We are beautifying the world with the Arts, creating music in the music department and the marching band, finding solutions in the model UN and debate conferences, striving for greatness in competitive sports, and doing so much more outside of just our studies,” Co said.  “And while we are a source to be reckoned with, we could not have done that alone.  Thank you to our parents, our teachers and mentors and everyone who has worked hard to build us a better future, for showing us courage, character and verosity…Never settle for silence.  Never lose your faith.  Always remember that your influence may not always be viral or record breaking, but it is never ever zero.”

On behalf of the student body, Dobrynio also addressed the graduates, thanking the South Plainfield administration, staff, teachers and parents for their support and encouragement over the years.

“To the Class of 2020, congratulations!”  Dobrynio said.  “We are here in person, finally seeing each other, not on Google Meet.  I know everything is still less than ideal.  We’re still living in unprecedented times.  Our moment of triumph is still being meddled with by the pandemic.  For some of us, the Coronavirus is taking away our freshman semester in college, myself included.  I’ll be learning online Fall semester.  You are not alone in your frustration.  We look forward to this time in our lives since we were young and it’s aggravating that we can’t experience it normally.  But after today, we will enter into a world so vast and so full of opportunity that we’ll look back at this as just another one of life’s challenges.”

“Back in June, I said I don’t want you to be defined by the virus,” Dobrynio said.  “We are a group of successful and enterprising young men and women and you will not be defined by this and to think that you are is an insult to your potential… We are together just beginning our journey in life and I beg you to fall in love with your journey.  This is the first time in our lives without the structure of school, and it is up to you to dig as hard as you possibly can to find your passion and when you do hold on tight.  We are still pioneers.  We are still enterprising young men and women so fall in love with your own journey, pursue it ambitiously and never back down.  Class of 2020, your destiny lies above you.  Thank you and good luck on your journey.”

Student Council President, Ibeku, addressed the student body, thanking family for instilling morals and values, friends for supporting, staff  for the guidance they provide and fellow students for electing him and creating an unforgettable high school experience. 

“Here it is, our last dance, our final,” Ibeku said.  “The day has come, and it almost doesn’t feel real.  No matter how much we dreaded walking through those doors at 8a.m. every morning, one way or another, we found a way to enjoy it.  Each time we walked through the door of SPHS, some part of us changed.  At that school, we were introduced to lifelong friends and our worst enemies.  We met our favorite teachers in the entire world, and other teachers, we didn’t quite connect with.  We built up our hopes and dreams while facing numerous setbacks.  I can say that through all of our ups and downs we faced the last four years, we’ve changed for the better, we’ve been through a lot.  From going to class during power outages, to signing into a virtual classroom.”

Ibeku recounted with nostalgia all the memories the class shared over the years but challenged the students to take on a new beginning.

“Senior year was supposed to be one of the most important years of our lives,” Ibeku said.  “But it wasn’t the senior year we asked for.  We hear constant reminders of what our years could have been, but I challenge you to see the other side of it because to me, March 13 marked the beginning.  This year was one of the most eventful years in history.  Even though the year ended quicker than expected, with every ending there’s a new beginning.  And Class of 2020, we are that beginning.”

During the second graduation ceremony, Class of 2020 Valedictorian Fiza Rizvi and National Honor Society President Alicia Vazquez, took to the podiums to speak.  

“Congratulations class of 2020!” Rizvi said.  “Good afternoon, socially distanced parents, staff and graduates.  First there are three groups that I would like to thank, admin, parents and teachers.  To the administrators, thank you for pulling off an in-person graduation for our class.  It truly means the world to have this moment.  To the parents, thank you for supporting us through our annoying teenage fits.  To the teachers, thank you for the diligence and undying faith you put into all of us these past couple months.  I could go on and on about the people who deserve a huge, lengthy thanks, but I only have a couple of minutes to speak to you for one last time as a class, or half in this case.”  

Using her personal experience, Rizvi explained how her drive for perfectionism had kept her from experiences.

“I’m going to tell you what my plan is for the next four years.  It’s actually pretty simple, to make mistakes,” Rizvi said.  “Everyone who’s close to me knows I’m an incredibly indecisive person…My perfectionism was the only obstacle between myself and happiness.  When you choose not to fear mistakes, you can effectively enjoy life.  The only thing that varies is how long that takes.  It could be a year or two or maybe even 17 like it was for me, but you eventually do get there.”  

“So in the future, I plan on doing things that make me uncomfortable and feel like they're not for me because in truth, however cliché this might seem, you are meant for whatever it is that you want,” Rizvi said.  “The beauty of it all is that you are the maker, so make mistakes because sometimes success conceals itself beneath them.  Say even after my attempt at an insightful farewell if you're all still skeptical, just take it from the guy who’s the personification of smart, Albert Einstein.  He said a person who never made a mistake never tried anything new. So do the new thing, travel to the complete opposite side of the globe, take a random class that has nothing to do with your career path, move to Utah for a year.  Be daring and bold.  Make your mistakes with confidence.  The best part is it’ll look like you know exactly what you're doing.  Thank you all and good luck to the class of 2020.”  

Vasquez also addressed those gathered, expressing her gratitude for everyone present.

“High School for many is a time of discovery and taking advantage of teenage years before focusing on the future, but what I have noticed is that most of us have been looking to the future since we were young,” Vasquez said.  “While we frolicked on playgrounds during recess, we barely withheld our excitement to move on to the next school and the next experience…Every single one of us must have a period of reflection and think about what we are now looking forward to, what does our future hold, what do we want our future to look like and how can we, as adults, mold it.”

“We can't be complacent because when we looked from one school to the next, we were hoping for better,” Vasquez said.  “We still must hope for better, but now, instead of clinging to simple hope, we must act and be the catalyst to initiate the advancement towards the future we envision.  It is not enough to envision and hope and wait for something new anymore, we have to move forward to obtain what will not be handed to us with ease.   I believe that our generation has a fight in store for us whether in regards to finishing school, getting a job or enacting change in a world…As we complete our high school journey and step once again into an unfamiliar season of life, I encourage all of us to have a period of introspection and fully understand what future we truly hope for and how we will make it a reality.”

As the last speakers left the podium, his words still echoing in the empty bleachers, the administration prepared to pronounce the senior graduates.  

“Dr. Lishak, having fulfilled the requirements of the South Plainfield Board of Education in the great state of New Jersey, it is with great pleasure that I recommend and present to you the class of 2020,” Diehl said.

Lishak certified that the class had met the graduation requirements set forth by the New Jersey Department of Education.

“It is with great pleasure that I present to you, the South Plainfield Class of 2020,” Lishak said.  “You have graduated.”

With applause and congratulations, each student was called by name to stand and walk across the field through the traditional South Plainfield High School arch while the pre-recorded chorus selection, “Almamater,” rung through the field.  The arch, adorned in white flowers and ribbons, is a longstanding SPHS transition and is donated each year by Mohn’s Flowers.

After the last student took their seat, Diehl offered the final words of the day.

“I want to take just a minute to thank all the people who made this possible today,” Diehl said.  “First, you probably know, we didn't know if today was going to happen.  We had about eight different scenarios that we worked on for months.  I want to thank our school Superintendent, Dr. Noreen Lishak for her commitment for promise to seniors that if there was any way possible for us to have an in-person, on the field graduation, we were going to have one.  And we did!”

Diehl made a special point to thank all of the many people who came together to work tirelessly to ensure the graduation came to fruition.  Diehl mentioned the dedication of the building and grounds crew who spent three days preparing the field.  Numerous South Plainfield staff volunteered to assist to help the event run smoothly.  South Plainfield Police, Firefighter, EMTs, and community officials also helped put the event together and watch over the ceremonies to make sure everyone was safe.  Diehl also thanked the Broadcasting and Chief Technical Officer for manning the audio and live stream for extended family and friends to watch and listen.  Diehl said the secretarial staff worked for weeks putting the details together.  Diehl ended his heartfelt expression of gratitude by thanking BOE members for attending and for all of their support.

“Graduates stand, make sure tassel on right side of your cap,” Diehl said. “While you’re standing, I want to thank your family members and support members.  Earlier today, I said thank you for your many contributions.  Parents and family members have waited a long time for this day.  Round of applause.  To our graduates, I want everyone to take your left hand, grab your tassel, pull it over to the left side.  Congratulations, class of 2020, you are officially graduated.  Thank you!”

With that, a huge, tiger roar erupted over the microphone, signifying the end of the graduation ceremonies, closing a rollercoaster year of unprecedented proportions.