NEWARK, NJ — The air in the Essex County College Athletic Center in Newark on June 22 was filled with excitement, nervousness, joy, relief and more as Columbia High School graduated the Class of 2017.
In many of the commencement speeches, the 433 graduates were encouraged to move forward and do great things, whether they are heading to college, the Armed Forces or the workforce, and to make sure to use the lessons they learned at CHS. The graduates were encouraged by each speaker to stay a united front against injustice and to work to make the world a better place.
After leading the graduates, faculty and family members in the salute to the flag, Student Council President Samori Etienne told his fellow graduates that the “long and tough four years” at CHS they had spent together had both led them to this point while allowing them to grow together and become more confident in who they are.
“If today is a day for tears, let them be tears of joy, not because we’re going out of Columbia, but because of the time we spent there,” Etienne said, adding that his fellow graduates are “the brightest, most talented group of young people I have ever had the privilege of knowing.”
“It gives me great pride to be able to say I went to high school with all of you,” he said.
He counseled his peers that they should challenge authority and that they should not view their youth as a burden, despite it often being seen as a sign of inexperience, naivete and hormonal imbalance.
“It is not our eyes that are too young to see the world as it is, but their eyes that are too old to see the world as it can be,” Etienne said. “Never be afraid to stand up and speak up. We are in the springtime of life.”
CHS Principal Elizabeth Aaron does not view the Class of 2017 as “too young” or inexperienced. In her speech, she credited the class members for their maturity, accomplishments and drive.
“Some of you know the people seated on your left and right and some of you met for the first time yesterday,” Aaron told her former students, who were seated in alphabetical order. And yet, she pointed out, they were quickly able to become organized and get through their graduation rehearsal the day before. “You were on cue and all together,” she said proudly.
She then gave the class several pieces of advice, such as “work together,” “listen carefully,” “practice until you get things right,” “don’t rush it,” “give everything your all,” “don’t look for shortcuts” and “take yourself seriously.”
“It’s no easy feat to make one thing work on any given day,” Aaron told the graduates. “Graduation rehearsal is a lot like life, and you are ready. You nailed it.”
Class of 2017 President Chloe Holt Reiss praised her classmates for their irrepressible spirit as they learned the tough lessons of life at CHS.
“The greatest lesson I have learned in the past four years is that you can’t be perfect,” Holt Reiss said. “You can’t be perfect and you can’t please everyone all the time.”
The class president described her time at CHS as one of extreme effort and learning, both the academic subjects that make up the school day and the life lessons that will help her and her classmates be successful.
“We had some setbacks, yet here we are. It wasn’t a perfect journey in any way, but you made it,” she said, stressing her classmates’ resilience. “Whatever happened to you in the last four years, you did not let it stop you. You are not perfect, but you will get where you want to go.”
Superintendent of Schools John Ramos Sr. also applauded the students for their many accomplishments and reminded them to thank the many teachers and family members who helped them reach this point. Nevertheless, Ramos stressed that each student has a reservoir of strength within themselves and will make the world better.
“You have unique gifts to contribute to the world. You are part of something bigger than yourself,” Ramos told the Class of 2017. “Always try to do your best and acknowledge the present. Love, laugh, embody and spread justice, joy and peace.”
Board of Education President Elizabeth Baker said she was reminded of the crucial work she hopes the Class of 2017 will do to make the world more equitable when she attended the Montrose moving-up ceremony earlier that week, where “squirmy 4 and 5 years olds” were addressed as the CHS Class of 2030.
“We serve the Class of 2030 and we make the world we want for the Class of 2030. That is the world you have been leading us in and demanding,” Baker told the graduates. “We want a world that has more opportunity and had more equity.”
Baker advised the graduates to “speak truth with such artistry, eloquence and creativity that your message penetrates deeply and is heard,” and told them that she looks forward to hearing of the many accomplishments she is sure are in their futures.
All the talk of future work to improve the world did nothing to dampen the celebratory atmosphere. The graduates were giddy as they watched the senior video retrospective and appropriately wonderstruck as they listened to the CHS Senior Choir.
Most of all, they were all smiles as they walked across the stage and received their diplomas, signalling the end of their high school years and the beginning of future successes.
Photos by Steve Ellmore