ORANGE, NJ — In a momentous reassertion of tradition before family and friends in the wake of the pandemic, the 2021 Orange High School commencement ceremony was celebrated Wednesday evening, June 23, at the Richard Codey Arena.
The event began with the procession of seniors and dignitaries entering the arena to an astounding rendition of “Pomp and Circumstance” accented by powerful drumming. The Pledge of Allegiance was then led by Gloria Noel, followed by a lovely, delicate performance of the national anthem by Xiomara Stratta. Both girls are in the Class of 2023. One hundred and ninety seniors were listed in the program.
After thanking the faculty for shaping their lives, Senior Class President Irica Grigsby introduced Principal Jason Belton as “our fearless leader.” Belton immediately asked everyone to give the seniors a round of applause.
“I’ve seen you guys persevere COVID,” he told the class.
In the more than a year that the school building was closed, Belton said the senior class had seen much, including the George Floyd demonstrations, the first black woman to become vice president of the United States and Black Lives Matter marches.
“This group is special to me,” he said of the Class of 2021. “I can stay up here all night and run off their names.”
He told the students that it was important to learn what factors will motivate them to succeed. For him, it was poverty. He went to college, he said, but when he got there, he “lost his way.”
“I forgot about opening the refrigerator and seeing an empty box,” he said.
But a college roommate took him aside and told him he had to apply himself to his studies. Belton said God put that person there to redirect him.
“You’re going to have to put in the work, no excuses,” he said. “I need you to come back and mentor young kids. You make sure you do something special for the kids of Orange. You make sure you make it back home.”
And if you should have any trouble, he said, call OHS for help.
“Life is going to punch you in the mouth,” said Belton, who had told the audience that as a youth he had trained as a boxer. “You have the community behind you.”
Orange Schools Superintendent Gerald Fitzhugh II echoed Belton’s words.
“The work is not done,” he said. “And remember to give back, because you’re an example for the people coming up.”
Fitzhugh told the seniors they had earned their place at the table and not to let anyone tell them otherwise.
“You’ve accomplished your first goal,” he said. “You graduated from Orange High School.”
He added that OHS seniors had been awarded a historic amount of college scholarship money. The program provided a list of 97 colleges and scholarships totaling nearly $17 million.
Orange Mayor Dwayne Warren spoke next, telling the graduates that, in 1984, he was sitting right where the Class of 2021 was sitting. It was a time, he said, when he thought the white man was holding black people down and a time when a black person did not even know what the inside of the White House looked like.
“But now there’s not a place where your face isn’t seen,” Warren said. “You’ll represent us well. Wake people up. Let people know there’s genius in this room.”
The Rev. H. William Rutherford III of the Ebenezer Baptist Church in Orange then spoke. He reminded the Class of 2021 that they were graduating in a world of systemic racism.
“I’m proud of you,” he said. “You’re the best of us. You made it this far against the odds.”
He told them to listen to their inner voice.
“Listen to that voice no matter what you hear on social media,” he said. “Get in touch with that voice and lead with love and embrace your street smarts and your book smarts.”
Everyone is afraid of something, he said, but he wanted the graduating seniors to “own their fear,” because they were each made a success by their creator.
“Don’t let other people impart their fear on you,” Rutherford said. “Trust in your creator and lead with love in every relationship.”
Following the OHS Graduates’ Oath, the presentation and acceptance of the class, nearly 200 hard-earned diplomas were awarded, capping the end of a singular school year.
The OHS Class of 2021 valedictorian was Sunny Andarge, and the salutatorian was Qualiyyah Bass.
Photos by Daniel Jackovino