MAPLEWOOD / SOUTH ORANGE, NJ — A year after the COVID-19 pandemic forced graduation to be a virtual celebration, Columbia High School was able to send the Class of 2021 off into their futures in person, holding this year’s ceremony at Yogi Berra Stadium on the campus of Montclair State University. CHS seniors finally got the chance to celebrate their time in the South Orange–Maplewood School District together, something they haven’t done much this year.
“Four years ago as a freshman at CHS, I often joked I already had senioritis,” Student Council President and graduate Elizabeth Crofton said in her speech at the ceremony. “I dreamed of being a senior; I dreamed of coming to class 10 minutes late with a sweat suit, car keys dangling from my pocket adorned with a college-themed lanyard and iced coffee. I dreamed of prom, beach week, sitting in the back of the classroom and giving advice to the underclassmen.”
But the pandemic threw a wrench in those plans, taking away most of the time students actually spent in the classroom this school year. Crofton said last year she couldn’t imagine being able to see the entire class in one place again.
“We made new traditions and created our own opportunities, thus proving the soul of CHS was not held in the in-person school, but in the students who worked overtime to make the most of our situation — becoming social justice warriors, filling up stadiums for our ultimate Frisbee team and hosting the school play at Flood’s Hill,” she said. “It is the work of our class that makes me proud to claim myself part of this CHS graduating class. We persevered through thick and thin, and came out stronger and more unified as a class.”
Crofton thanked her classmates for supporting her throughout her campaigns for Student Council office.
“We all made it, and I see what we’ve made for ourselves,” she said. “I see hardworking individuals, future pro athletes, doctors, leaders, Broadway actresses, superstars in the making. To the class that always supported me throughout my student council elections, I want to let you know how much I support you all and how excited I am to see what everyone will accomplish in the future.”
Student Council Vice President Thaddeus Bernard presented awards to the three students who ended their high school careers with the highest grade-point averages in the class; Olivia Brash and Skylar Yarter tied for salutatorian, and Josh Lee came in first to be named valedictorian.
“Columbia students are brilliant, intuitive and diligent,” Bernard said in his own speech.
In his first in-person graduation ceremony as the head of the district, Superintendent Ronald Taylor described the unusual circumstances that surrounded the last two years of the Class of 2021’s time at CHS.
“None before you have experienced a journey with more uncertainty than the ones you have encountered and overcome,” Taylor said at the ceremony. “For the past 15 months or so, we have repeatedly used terms like ‘unprecedented,’ ‘unparalleled,’ ‘extraordinary.’ We said things like ‘We’re in unprecedented times,’ ‘These are unparalleled challenges,’ ‘These are extraordinary circumstances.’ We used these terms to try and describe the challenges that we all were managing.”
The pandemic didn’t just change school life, it changed daily life for everyone in almost every way.
“The things we took for granted, the things that came so natural to us, the innate want to be together, to go see a movie in a theater, to attend a concert or a play, to sit in class with your peers, to have lunch in the cafeteria or a food court or a restaurant, just the ability to hug, to high five or shake hands,” he said. “Unprecedented, unparalleled, extraordinary. We had to learn how to teach and learn again.”
Phoebe Holt-Reiss was one of the three student speakers as the Class of 2021 president. She described the many changes that seniors and other students have made in their time at CHS.
“We’ve made our voices heard time and time again, improving upon our school while making it our own,” Holt-Reiss said. “Even in lockdown, we gave input on distance learning to school and district administration, and this year we saw live classes with significantly more support. While it hasn’t been ideal, we spoke up and urged for improvements so we could succeed.”
The changes Holt-Reiss talked about weren’t limited to improving online learning.
“One of the first things we learned at Columbia was that you could have soap or you could have toilet paper in the bathroom, but your chances of having both were incredibly slim. You guys, it took a pandemic, but we finally have both,” Holt-Reiss said. “Over our years here, we have taken this school and made it ours. We are leaving Columbia better than we found it, and now it is upon all future grades to leave it better than they find it.”
Photos by Steve Ellmore