WEST ORANGE, NJ — West Orange High School’s graduation ceremony is usually held at Codey Arena, but this year it was held at each individual senior’s home. With the COVID-19 pandemic forcing gatherings to be shut down, the Class of 2020 lost out on all the traditions that come along with finishing high school. But a ceremony was still had, and it was livestreamed on June 23.
“You were faced with the challenge of a global pandemic, and I’m proud to say that you did not back down,” WOHS Principal Hayden Moore said during the ceremony. “You took on this responsibility for the betterment of not only you and the betterment of your family, but our entire community. Your actions will not only lead West Orange, but our country, to a brighter and safer future. No one can challenge your patriotism, your love of our country or the sacrifices you had to endure in order to heal our local community and our global society.”
After a montage of the class’ athletic, artistic and academic achievements, salutatorian Brett Zeligson gave his speech. He joked that he was wearing pajama pants underneath his cap and gown.
“Would I be giving my speech to an ice rink full of people, or sitting on a lawn chair outside with my cap and gown and pajama pants underneath? Would I be celebrating with the Class of 2020 in person or over Zoom?” Zeligson said, recounting his thoughts leading up to graduation. “Would I be looking forward to Project Graduation, or would I just be lucky to get a haircut for the first time in three months?”
Zeligson said that, even while stuck at home, he and his classmates found ways to come together.
“Our senior year got a little wrecked by a virus we can’t even see, but we still came together, whether it was through Zoom calls, drive-by birthday celebrations or Instagram bingo,” he said. “We made it clear that tragedy wouldn’t define us. As we all go out into the world from this special place in northern New Jersey, this resilience instilled in every single one of us will come in handy. Whether it be the armed forces, college, a job or any other endeavor, not giving up in the face of adversity has become instinctual for us.”
West Orange Board of Education President Ken Alper, whose son Nathaniel graduated this year, also spoke during the ceremony.
“This whole spring, as we adults freaked out about how we were going to make remote learning work, about what would happen to sports, to prom, to graduation, you showed us in so many ways that it was going to be OK and that together we’d make it through this challenging time,” Alper said. “You set the tone. In the classroom and on the field, as volunteers and mentors, as leaders in this school and in our community, you set the tone. When you stand up against racism and injustice, when you show the way forward on the issues your generation has embraced, when you fight for equality for all people and for the many changes you know this world needs to see, you set the tone.”
Superintendent Scott Cascone, in his first graduation ceremony as the head of the district, said that even though this is not the commencement he imagined, he’s glad to be in West Orange for it.
“I refuse to have my first year as superintendent defined by what’s happened in the past three months. To do so would be to forget and ignore all the amazing moments and experiences I’ve had this year, from taking in the phenomenal theatrical talents, grooving to the jubilee choir, marveling at the extraordinary feats and accomplishments on the athletic fields and in the classrooms, or just talking and interacting with you at these events,” Cascone said. “As I refuse to have my year defined by these closures, I would ask you to follow me and do the same, to not define your year and your career in West Orange public schools by the last three exceptional months.”
Valedictorian Anika Fernandes talked about her reaction to the pandemic and the resulting lockdown.
“When spring break was first moved to take active steps against the coronavirus, I was thrilled. The stress of all the upcoming events and tests I had to take all suddenly melted away and I could sleep for embarrassingly long periods of time,” she said. “As the situation progressed, however, it became clear that my senior year was going to come to an abrupt end and without much resolution. Many of the circumstances surrounding this quarantine are out of our control. But by choosing to better ourselves and help others, we can begin to overcome those circumstances. As we continue our academic careers and our journey into adulthood, having this positive perspective will become more important than ever.”