Class of 2020 graduates from Nutley High School

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NUTLEY, NJ — Although Nutley High School seniors couldn’t cross the stage or turn their tassels together, there was still an impressive showing of community for the Class of 2020’s commencement ceremony, which was broadcast on June 24. The prerecorded ceremony went live at 6 p.m., with nearly 500 viewers all watching together though apart from around Nutley and elsewhere to celebrate NHS’ most recent batch of graduates.

“Pomp and Circumstance,” the traditional graduation anthem, accompanied the graduation “processional,” during which each student’s photograph was shown on screen. This was followed by the national anthem and a performance by the NHS choir performing. Next came the speeches, prerecorded in the sun on the school’s campus. Despite being held on an online platform, it felt like the high school’s past graduations.

Some student speakers, such as senior class President Raj Paghdal, chose to focus on their accomplishments despite the pandemic that canceled many rites of passage that come with the end of high school.

“When thinking of our graduation, I never thought I’d be standing in front of a camera and only a camera,” Paghdal said. “I always thought we’d be on the Oval, on the burning hot turf, under the blazing sun, in front of our friends and family, who would look upon us with pride and joy. Obviously that isn’t the case, but regardless we still made it.”

According to Paghdal, he had found his class’s year of graduation symbolic, representing perfect vision and clarity. While struggling with the effect the pandemic had on his schooling, Paghdal has vowed to have 2020 hindsight in remembering all the good things he and his classmates did experience.

“Just as the weather began to grow warm and the fun part of senior year was on the queue, it came to a stop. At that time, we were told two weeks, then a month, and then we were told that school would be closed for the rest of the year. March 13 was by far the worst Friday the 13th, as it would be our last day in school,” he said, encouraging his classmates to remember how resilient they are. “Years down the line, let’s not remember high school by what we missed out on, but by what we had.”

Salutatorian Natasha Marshall had a similar message for her classmates.

“Although graduation this year certainly isn’t traditional, this is still a happy and exciting time,” she said. “As a class, our life experience has been defined by change. We were born at the beginning of a new millennium; we’ve seen technology grow and watched as social media platforms evolved into the new standard of communication. And now, as graduating seniors, our lives are filled with transformation like never before.”

And Marshall was not just talking about the COVID-19 pandemic when she spoke of change.

“The world is experiencing a major cultural revolution as people around the world are marching and demonstrating in the biggest civil rights movement in history. But we are not unequipped to understand what’s taking place in the world around us. Throughout the past four years at Nutley High School, we’ve been required to take classes in various areas,” Marshall said. “It’s true that we might never have to solve a calculus problem or analyze a poem in our day-to-day lives, but now more than ever I realize that I didn’t just learn a bunch of random facts in my classes.”

Drawing examples from her two favorite subjects, Marshall explained how English literature classes taught her to think critically and history classes showed the importance of learning from the past. She encouraged her fellow graduates to think also about the many lessons they learned in school beyond the classroom, such as cooperation, hard work and much more.

“Our high school experiences are just the start of us finding our voices and our places in the world,” she said.

Valedictorian Brian Grodzki also urged his peers to draw from all they have learned at Nutley High School as they go out into the world.

“I am so honored to be virtually standing before you all today — at least we don’t have to wear sunscreen and bake on the frying pan that is the Oval,” he began, injecting levity into the proceedings before getting down to business. “Grades don’t equal life experiences. Rather, they’re a by-product of goals, ambition, hard work, sacrifice, stress, stress, lots of stress, too much stress. Therefore I want us to turn to our own experiences.”

Grodzki drew parallels between his time at NHS and the classic children’s book “The Giving Tree,” by Shel Silverstein. 

“To me, Nutley High School will always be my giving tree,” he said, explaining that NHS gave him more and more resources as he grew, both academically and socially. “By this point we have taken so much wood from the tree that we can build our own ships. With all of our experiences, we will set sail far away to colleges, the military or straight into the workforce, if we please.

“Now, as we are ready to set sail on our own, we realize how much is ahead of us. We’re excited for the future, but we’re nervous at the same time. I feel now more than ever we are realizing how much we have taken for granted. We have taken so much from the giving tree that is NHS,” he continued. “Unfortunately, we also had many memories and experiences snatched right away from us. However, this time it is merely a splash of water in our ocean. Our ships will become reinforced from our experiences.”

Just as “The Giving Tree” ends with the boy returning to the tree stump years later, Grodzki exhorted his peers to return to NHS when they can and to remember all the school has done for them.

Drawing from a quote by Dante Alighieri, NHS Principal Denis Williams told the Class of 2020: “This was not how we wanted to part, but congratulations and the stars will shine for you again.”

Always an educator, Williams left his former students with one final lesson.

“As you stand on the cusp of new journeys in a world fraught with contention, my last message to you will be to remind you of the mindsets that are needed to be successful people and citizens in a democracy,” he said. “Mindset one, humility. You need to be aware of what you know and what you don’t know, and you need to be aware of the limitations of your viewpoints. Two, courage. Be willing to stand up and express against the majority and express your views even if they are unpopular.

“Three, empathy, to have an awareness of the need to be actively entertaining different views from yours and to gain insights from them,” he continued. “Four, integrity. Hold to yourself the standards that you expect from others. And finally, perseverance, to be willing to work through difficulties, frustrations, to not give up at the first sign of problems. We need all of you to hopefully embed this in your souls and in your mindsets. We need you for our futures.”

Board of Education President Charles Kucinski also spoke about the graduates’ futures and he urged them to continue to remain strong in the face of seemingly insurmountable difficulties.

“Don’t allow the past four months to define your high school years. There are hundreds of wonderful moments you will relive about your Nutley education. You will now begin designing your future,” he said. “We know you have been inspired to dream and encourage you to follow an open pathway to learning.”

Also giving some advice, Kucinski told the graduating students to trust themselves, believe and know that they each matter, be kind, and be confident.

“If you can graduate during COVID-19 and a world pandemic, there isn’t anything you can’t do,” he said.

Like previous speakers, Superintendent of Schools Julie Glazer lamented that everyone could not celebrate together at this time, but feted the Class of 2020 and their many accomplishments despite the recent struggles.

“Today we honor your years of study, hard work and accomplishments. We also thank all of those who have supported you during your academic career in Nutley: the faculty, staff, parents, grandparents, siblings and your friends,” she said. “We talk a lot about what it means to be from Nutley, to be ‘Nutley stronger.’ In the past few months, you’ve truly shown us the beliefs and values that represent the maroon and gray.”

In the Class of 2020’s response to the novel coronavirus, Glazer said the students showed resilience, grace and grit.

“The Class of 2020 has been achieving great things since you first stepped into a classroom, and now you’ve demonstrated your strength to continue to accomplish in these unprecedented times,” she said. “Enjoy your success. Be proud. We’re proud of you and everything that you’ve achieved so far. We look forward to all of the extraordinary things you’re going to do in the future, too.”