NORTH CALDWELL, NJ — After days of rain, the sun shone at the West Essex High School Class of 2019 commencement ceremony on June 21, when 296 students graduated with Theodore "Teddy" Press as Valedictorian and Julia Parzecki as Salutatorian.

Press welcomed his classmates, stating that the last time he was on stage in front of everyone he was in a red cheerleading skirt and a crop top, referring to his involvement in the Mr. West Essex Pageant.

"I also wore a cap and gown for Mr. West Essex, but this time it’s real," he said. "Today carries a lot of weight. For as long as we can remember, graduation seemed a distant shadow in the fog; we knew it was there, but it was always far away and difficult to make out. Now that we are finally here, the gravity of the day hasn’t quite hit me yet."

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Press spoke about his time at West Essex, and how it feels like he and his fellow classmates "simultaneously spent a single week and an entire lifetime here, growing from the Freshman of Bel Air to the Supreme Seniors."

"I am impressed with each and every peer that I have had the pleasure to spend time with at West Essex," he said. "I enjoyed celebrating the newsworthy accomplishments—the field hockey and football and wrestling and tennis and golf championships, the all-state musicians, and the award-winning artists—but I also found the hidden talents and interests of the student body to be just as admirable. I discovered peers’ passions for volunteering, designing clothes, learning languages, coding apps, and filming movies."

As he looked out at the crowd of seniors, Press said he saw "the beginning of a bright future filled with visionary artists and engineers and entrepreneurs."

"I feel a deep sense of drive and commitment in every one of you," said Press. "This class has filled me with a great sense of hope for the future.

"Though we may be headed to different parts of the country, do not forget your roots. Do not forget the late nights you spent studying for tests, the nervous excitement during your move up days, the unchained freedom of the last day of school. Do not forget your hours of practice, your scary mistakes, and your large and small successes. And do not forget the times spent with your friends and the joy of their laughter. Let these memories serve as a reminder of where you’ve come from and how much you’ve grown. You are not the same person that you were when you first stepped foot on the West Essex campus; you are better."

Press urged his fellow graduates to "continue to grow and change and learn" while also embracing their past and also allowing it to motivate them.

"It is much easier to imagine your life in the future when you can reflect on all that has already changed," he said. "Today, senior year leaves us feeling both bittersweet and relieved. It’s a tough transition to live without the constants of high school—the familiar faces of friends and teachers, of rotating blocks and practices. But it’s also exciting to move onto another phase of our lives, to meet new people and explore new parts of ourselves.

"Time seems to move slowly until you examine all that has passed; and as I look back, high school was quite a whirlwind...If we remember to look back at where we started and continue to cultivate our abilities, there’s no stopping the West Essex Class of 2019 in the future."

This was also the last graduation for retiring superintendent Barbara Longo, who spoke to the students about saying goodbye. She was moved to tears near the end of her speech when she quoted Winnie The Pooh, saying: "How lucky I am to have something that makes saying goodbye so hard."

Submit graduation photos to jkassebart@tapinto.net to be featured in this photo gallery to commemorate 2019 West Essex Graduation.