Four-hundred forty-one seniors graduated from Linden High School on Tuesday, June 16, in a virtual ceremony that celebrated a school year in which students learned to adapt to remote learning and seniors coped with the loss of many high school traditions.
The school’s 110th Commencement was viewed by graduates, faculty and staff, families, and community members on YouTube instead of the usual ceremony under the June sun at the Tiger Stadium at Cooper Field athletic complex. The in-person ceremony was called off because of ongoing struggles with COVID-19 in Linden and throughout New Jersey.
The ceremony was emceed by LHS Vice Principal Frank Bandinelli. Students and other administrators who spoke in the video talked of the difficulties they had faced throughout the year, but also of the resilience and dedication shown by students and staff members in the face of the worldwide pandemic.
“You have had to overcome obstacles that no one else has had to face,” said Interim Superintendent Denise Cleary. “The loss of the end of your senior year has been devastating and the change in your day-to-day life in the past months completely unimaginable. Class of 2020, you have persevered, you are strong, and you will always be remembered for that.”
Valedictorian Sarah Mostafa, who will be attending the Ernest Mario School of Pharmacy at Rutgers University, thanked teachers, other staff members, and her family.
“Despite the hardships that we have face in these past few months, we can choose to focus on our gifts instead of our misfortunes,” she said. “My fellow graduates, I do want to remind you that there is much to be thankful for on this special day.”
Board of Education President Gregory R. Martucci commended the graduates on their response to the difficulties of remote learning and the loss of senior traditions.
“It is with great admiration, we as a board have seen the resilient, creative, and inventive ways each of you has accommodated the new normal,” he said.
Linden Mayor Derek Armstead urged the graduates to stay positive.
“Today, while the tone is more somber than usual, please, please, please reflect and savor the last 14 years of your lives — the fun, the stories, the learning, the friendships, the teachers who have helped change your lives forever,” he said. “Your parents, who by definition sacrifice every day with the hope that your future, your opportunities, are better than those that they had when they graduated from high school.”
Salutatorian Laura Robert-Ubaechu, who will be attending Seton Hall University, recognized those who have suffered from COVID-19 and shared details about her own family’s difficulties because of the outbreak. She said that her mother was stuck in Nigeria because she couldn’t get a flight home. And that her father works in a hospital and has seen colleagues die from the virus.
“During this stressful time, we have had to learn to cope with different obstacles that have taught us valuable lessons,” she said. “First and foremost, we have learned to appreciate our friends and family. I hope that when we move on from this, everyone will remember to cherish those close to them.”
Speakers also remarked on the struggles for social and racial justice following the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis. Class President Tyler Farrar, who will be attending the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York City, gave a powerful speech focusing on how hard it was to get in a celebratory mood when the current state of inequality weighs on him.
“This will probably be the hardest speech I’ll ever have to deliver,” he started. “How can I say anything remotely inspirational or convince my peers that we will have a successful future when I don’t know if I will be alive to see my own goals turn into reality.”
He called on his fellow graduates to work to change things for the better.
“I know there is no easy fix to a system that was put into place many ages ago, far before we were even thought of. But I know that we will be the generation to fix it.”
Another highlight of the virtual commencement was an emotional photo montage of over 200 celebration snapshots submitted by students and their families. Students took photos in their caps and gowns with lawn signs and decorations at their homes, with family members, in parks, and even in front of the New York City skyline.
The video also included a remote performance of the LHS choir performing the graduation song, “Fall on Me,” under the direction of vocal music teacher Duane Cosby.
The day after the graduation ceremony, the students enjoyed a drive-through celebration the at Linden Airport sponsored by the Linden Mayor’s Youth Commission. Graduates lined up by the hundreds in their cars with family members to be recognized on stage by Armstead and other school and community leaders.
Prior to graduation, the school and community made sure the students knew they weren’t being overlooked despite not having a traditional graduation. Staff members volunteered for a celebratory event in front of the school to hand out gift bags. Each bag included a cap and gown, compliments of the Linden High School PTA; a Class of 2020 lawn sign; a T-shirt compliments of the Linden police, fire, and teachers unions; a tote bag and mask from the Mayor’s Youth Commission; and a diploma cover.
In addition, every senior was given a free yearbook from the Board of Education to make sure they were able to remember their senior year.
Special awards were given out in the virtual graduation, including top honors to students in three areas of study:
College preparatory: Mostafa, Robert-Ubaechu, Chisom Uzor, Jessica Andre, Oliver Laguerre.
Business education and computer science: Justin Peters, Maciej Pudlik, Bryan S. Vargas, Mekhi Hayes and Zachary K. Donovan.
Career and Technical Education: Britney Zamora, Matthew Negron, Diego A. Novoa, Amir Williams, and Connor W. Walker.
LHS Principal Yelena Horré named Ryan Sautner as the Union County Secondary Schools Principals Exemplary Student.
The A.R. Taranto Award for Best All-Around Student, which is named for a former superintendent and was awarded by his niece, district Business Administrator Kathleen A. Gaylord, went to Mathew Rocha.
The William McMahon Perfect Attendance Award, named for a Linden High School English teacher who retired in 2019 after 33 years without a sick day, was given to Pia Foy and Wei Ren for never missing a day in their four years of high school.
Linden High School faculty members who are retiring this year were also recognized. They are Saeda Abdeljaber (science), Robert Drake (math), Cheryl English (resource), Barbara Kolesa (physical education), Jan Pac (German), Greg Stier (English), and Bozena Szulc (Russian).
In her remarks, Horré recognized the difficulties that students have faced this year — “goodbyes unsaid, teachers not thanked, hugs not given, final doors not closed.” But she quoted an old Jewish proverb as a response: “I ask not for a lighter burden, but for broader shoulders.”
“Your burden has been heavy – but your stride is steady and strong,” Horre told the graduates. “You are powerful because you have been tested and did not falter. And so you will continue to forge the path as we enter a world that must be very different from the one we knew before. But it is a world that needs you.
“There is no greater privilege than to rise to service.”