BELLEVILLE, NJ — The Belleville High School Class of 2022 celebrated its graduation on Thursday, June 23, in a ceremony that challenged the idea of the future that many students had envisioned pre-pandemic.
The mood, despite overcast skies and whipping wind, was not dour but rather hopeful, taking lessons learned from the pandemic, such as perseverance and a willingness to accept failure. The result was a group of powerful and thoughtful speeches that expressed the reality of the world the graduating seniors had to endure during their time at BHS, and what the class members should carry forward into their lives beyond school.
Class of 2022 President Danielle San Juan was the first to take the mic, conveying the attitude that failure can be harnessed as a tool, rather than being something to avoid altogether — a lesson no doubt absorbed during the year and a half of virtual learning the Class of 2022 underwent. She compared her senior year to kindergarten, in that she was asked in both what she wanted to be when she was older.
“This year they asked all of us again what we wanted to be, except this time they wanted a real answer,” San Juan said. “How about this answer: Who knows and who cares? This is the time to explore and to make mistakes. Declare the wrong major, fall in love with the wrong person, make a bad investment or mess up during an interview. Who the hell cares?”
This feeling of catharsis, of coming out of the pandemic willing to take risks and accept failure, was echoed by the Student Government Organization President Sophia Bojorquez in her speech. She too reflected on the challenge that quarantine presented, as well as the many hardships and setbacks that the Class of 2022 faces on a daily basis.
“I believe, in order to succeed, you must learn to lose,” Bojorquez said. “Maybe you tried out for the musical and didn’t get it. Maybe you found out you might not graduate this year. Maybe you lost a friend or failed AP calculus for the year. I hope some of these scenarios sound relatable, because they are all of our stories. But it’s not the fact that we lost something, it’s that we kept on trying.”
Sarai Rodriguez, the class salutatorian, posited that success was something one must earn for oneself. She also said that any success, no matter how small, was worth celebrating — another lesson no doubt learned during quarantine, when small victories were essential to persevering.
“Don’t rely on the approval and validation of others to define how you acknowledge your accomplishments,” Rodriguez said. “Be proud of yourself for waking up this morning, putting on your cap and gown, making it down the aisle. Be proud that you are here today and that you are about to receive your diploma.”
The idea of self-acceptance and of learning from one’s past was the focus of valedictorian Michelle Jean-Louis’ speech. Jean-Louis, who will attend Harvard University in the fall, spoke powerfully about her experience as an immigrant, and about how the lessons she learned over the span of her life have led her to where she is today.
“Who would I be now if not for my past self? If not for the 12-year-old immigrant girl who, upon learning what the word valedictorian meant in her sixth-grade ESL class, thought to herself: Well, I want to be valedictorian one day,” Jean-Louis said.
The passion Jean-Louis put into the speech was palpable. At one point, she became so engaged in the speech that her cap fell off her head. She continued without missing a beat.
“I urge you to remember the past and the people that have helped lead you here. The accomplishments and victories of today are the fruit of the will and desire of those who came before you and your past self,” Jean-Louis said. “As you walk off the field and toward the future that awaits you, remember who you were. Remember where you came from. Remember the past. Let it fuel you. Let it be a reminder of your greatness.”
When accepting the certification of the Class of 2022, Superintendent of Schools Richard D. Tomko said he could not put into words what the graduating seniors must have felt throughout the past four years of hardship. He said he was certain, however, that they had learned more than most and could overcome whatever stood in their way next.
“I am in awe of all of you for what you have accomplished through something that none of us have seen in our lifetimes. We’ve helped you through it, but we do not know what you went through,” Tomko said. “Opportunity is going to come to you in many different forms. You have to grab it when it is in front of you. Don’t be worried about failing or about succeeding in the future. Just take those opportunities.”
Board of Education President Luis Muniz echoed this sentiment in the last speech of the ceremony. He too spoke to the uncertainty of what lay ahead for the Class of 2022 but said he believed that the last few years had prepared the graduates for anything.
“I can’t stand here and give you scenarios for what life is going to be like,” Muniz said. “But the truth is, like your last four years here at BHS, you’re going to figure it out. And in those moments where you feel stuck and it’s more than you think you can bear, just know that you have a village behind you to help you figure it out.
He concluded: “If you can come together during uncertain times and come out the other end better and stronger, you can do that with the many challenges life will throw your way.”
Photos by Steve Ellmore