WAYNE, NJ – There was no pomp needed, only circumstance. After weeks of ups and downs for the Wayne Valley High School class of 2020; after Mayor Chris Vergano stepped over the Board of Education to host a graduation celebration when it was unclear if or how the BOE would be able to hold one; after Wayne adults bickered and argued on social media whether this was the right thing to do; after the Governor stepped over the Mayor and forced the township-sponsored events to cancel; the graduating class took matters into their own hands. On their own, unsanctioned and without permission from anyone, most of the graduating class of WV gathered on their football field and celebrated their own way.
It was a perfect, late spring evening with the sun setting behind the bleachers, when the ceremony began. About 180 of the 305 graduating seniors of the WV class of 2020, wearing white beneath their dark blue gowns with matching graduation caps, lined up on the hash lines of the football field and faced the home bleachers which were emblazoned in giant numbers: ‘2020.’ In the bleachers and along the sidelines were proud parents and family there to support and celebrate their kids.
The seniors were excited and clearly happy; talking, laughing, and dancing while waiting to start. “This is the first time a lot of these kids have seen each other since quarantine began,” said Mary Katz, whose daughter Halle was among the graduating seniors.
WV Student Council President, Kevin Feeney and Jordan Kennedy were the masters of ceremony for the event and spoke into a microphone attached to a small speaker that was barely loud enough to reach the back of the bleachers, but no one cared about the quality of the audio. Everyone in attendance was just happy that this unofficial graduation was taking place, and that the graduating class was both literally and figuratively getting their moment together in the sun.
Jackie Tkaczenko opened the event by singing a beautiful rendition of the national anthem while the students and audience faced the flag.
Feeney then took the microphone and thanked Mayor Vergano for his efforts in trying to hold a graduation celebration; adding thanks to Staci Lupo and Barbara Rigoglioso and the other organizers who worked with the Mayor on the failed event. “And, we can thank Murphy in the voting booth this November,” said Feeney, which garnered a huge shout of approval from the seniors and the families on the sideline.
Then every name of the 2020 WV graduating class was read aloud by Feeney and Kennedy who was the driving force behind the event. For those in attendance, each student stepped forward when their name was called to be recognized, waving to the crowd and beaming huge smiles; while their family in the audience, and their friends around them cheered.
After the last name was read, Senior Class President, Erin Matthews was introduced. “I think our class proved that we don’t take ‘no’ for an answer,” she said into the microphone. “After everything was canceled, we just kept going and going, and pushing and pushing. I’m so proud of everyone and this proves that you can do anything in life; anything you put your mind to. So, Congratulations.”
At that moment, the class moved the tassels on their caps from one side to the other signifying, in their own minds, that they had officially graduated. They then came together in the center of the football field on top of the Wayne Valley emblem and on the count of three, together as a class, threw their caps up into the air.
This was the moment they wanted. This was the moment they risked reprimand for and rebelled against executive orders for. This was the moment they had been waiting for since senior year began ten months earlier. When adults, right or wrong, could not do it for them, this was the moment they created, and their joy drifted in the air long after their caps fell to the ground.
“He [Governor Murphy] put a stop to Mayor Vergano, but he could not put a stop to the class of 2020,” said Feeney after the event. “And, I’m very happy how it turned out.”
Feeney was asked if the state had a right to come in and stop the event. “I believe they had that right,” answered Feeney. “But I believe in our constitutional right to assemble, and I’m very proud of all of us for making this day happen.”
“Without the whole COVID pandemic, the graduation would’ve been today,” said Kennedy. “We had this date marked down since the beginning of school, and we felt that it was important that we did this on this date.”
Was there a statement being made here with this ceremony happening today? “Yes. The statement is Murphy needs to get out of office. That’s the statement.”
This make-shift, clumsy yet beautiful event was put together in one day. “We were texting in the group chat with the whole school and we made it happen,” said Kennedy proudly. “I’m just glad we could do this for everyone here.”
“This was the best four years of my life,” said Feeney of his time at WV. “I made the best friends and I had the best teachers. Everyone is so kind-hearted here, and we stick with each other, as shown by today’s turn-out.”
Feeney was asked if he was going to the official school-sanctioned graduation scheduled for July 30. “Yes, we are all very excited to attend the July 30 graduation. Today was more about celebrating on the date that was scheduled for us. We wanted to throw our caps on the actual day set aside for us, and not a month or so after.”
Kennedy echoed Feeney’s remarks about their school. “Wayne Valley is the best school,” he said. “The best students, the best teachers, the best coaches, best guidance, best football team, best everything. We have amazing athletes, and smart students. So, yeah this is the best school and a great environment.”
Kennedy’s mother, Samantha is very proud of her son. “When the Township’s event was canceled, he said to me: ‘Mom, there’s got to be something I can do.’ And, he threw this together and proved that he is a leader. I couldn’t be more proud.”
“Thank god this happened,” said Carol Porter, the mother of graduate Whitney Porter. “I’m very proud of all the seniors for doing this.”
“I graduated on this field thirty years ago,” said Kara McConnell, mother of graduating twins Katelyn and Allison McConnell. “And, I’m glad my kids are doing the same." She then added: "They did this for themselves, but they also did this partly to say to the Governor: ‘Hey buddy, we are going to vote in November.’”
There will be further arguments in social media about whether this event should’ve happened because of politics, because of legalities, because of impatience and privilege; and because of public safety and public health, but the graduating class in attendance this night, much like those protesting against injustice in the weeks before, would not allow their right to peacefully assemble be taken from them, and they would not be deterred.