After a school year of COVID-19 protocols and virtual learning, Linden High School’s 111th Commencement ceremony was a rousing celebration of life, perseverance, and achievement.
Three hundred ninety-eight students graduated on Friday, June 18, in a beautiful evening ceremony at Tiger Stadium at Cooper Field that brought together students, families, teachers, staff, and administrators after many months of being scattered by a pandemic. The night was hosted by Jason Fekete, LHS’s vice principal for the senior class.
Salutatorian Melissa Menzel kicked off the ceremony with a speech about her own battle against a rare form of brain cancer. She discussed the long, exhausting struggle just to get a diagnosis, and then her long fight against the disease.
But she told her classmates that she found a way to remain positive, and urged them to do the same in the face of whatever challenges may come up in life.
“I started to look for things to focus on that would help me feel hopeful, rather than hopeless,” said Menzel, who will continue her education at Kean University. “I needed to focus on things to be grateful for. It wasn’t until I started thinking more positively that I was able to find the motivation and commitment to not give up and to persevere through my hardship.
“If there is one last piece of advice I want to leave everyone with, it’s to try your best to go through life and all of its struggles with all of the grace and optimism that you can possibly muster. It’s what will help you see past the hardship you may encounter, to not give up, and to imagine the future that you want to create for yourself. Congratulations to the Class of 2021. The best of our lives is yet to come.”
Linden Mayor Derek Armstead told the graduates that he was happy they were finally able to gather for a celebration after a year of COVID-19.
“I would be remiss if I didn’t mention last year’s Class of 2020, who suffered just as well because of the pandemic,” he said. “We provided them with an airport graduation and for a while I thought we would have to do the same thing again. But then a glimmer of hope, a light at the end of the tunnel appeared.
“I am confident that the lessons that you learned from this pandemic will be carried throughout your life and will make you better and will make you stronger. I am proud of each and every one of you for never giving up.”
LHS Principal Yelena Horré said that with all the graduates have faced in the past year, they deserved a very special sendoff.
“Tonight we celebrate, in front of family and friends, your incredible accomplishments during the past four years, the past two of which have been truly unprecedented,” she said. “Overnight you had to adapt from face-to-face learning to distance learning. And yet you all persevered. Many of you took on the added responsibility of taking care of younger siblings, of working to support your family, and the anguish of COVID-19, and still you persisted.”
Horré also spoke of discussions about “loss of learning” during the pandemic.
“I realize how absurd that concept really is. You’ve lost nothing,” she said. “You’ve gained an incredible amount of empathy, knowledge, and resilience during the past 15 months. You’ve learned more about yourself, about grit and perseverance, than perhaps any other graduating class. You’ve learned to push forward and adapt in the face of unparalleled adversity.”
Valedictorian Jordyn Loftus told her fellow graduates they should be proud for coming so far.
“Although we were all faced with many challenges, we managed to overcome them, just as we will continue to do in the future,” said Loftus, who will continue her education at West Chester University. “The road ahead is full of uncertainty, but we cannot allow this to hold us back from reaching our full potential. I would like to share a quote with you that inspires me. It reads, ‘You are braver than you believe, stronger than you seem, and smarter than you think.’ You may not believe me when I tell you that this is a Disney quote spoken by Christopher Robin from ‘Winnie the Pooh,’ but it is.
“Nothing is impossible, so never say that you can’t do something, because you can. With hard work, dedication, and determination, anything is possible.”
Superintendent of Schools Dr. Marnie Hazelton said the pandemic helped graduates find strength that they did not know they possessed.
“To call you all survivors would be an understatement,” she said. “You have thrived, you are resilient, bold, and wondrously made. Sixteen months ago, your educational careers were upended, however you met adversity head-on and continued to soar.
“You are ready to face an obstacles placed in your way. You are Linden Tigers! No two tigers have the same stripes. Their stripe patterns are unique to each individual. You can hear a tiger’s roar from two miles away. So as you set the world ablaze with your roar and your uniqueness like tigers, remember the love that Linden poured into you since you were little tiger cubs.”
Board of Education President Carlos A. Rivas call the celebration a historic moment and invited all the families and friends in attendance to give the graduates a standing ovation, and the crowd obliged with enthusiasm.
Rivas also recalled his journey to America when he spoke no English, and spoke to graduates whose first language is not English.
“There will be many who will perceive this language barrier as a weakness but you will turn it into an opportunity, where there will be no closed doors and no glass ceilings,” he said. “To all of you whose first language is English, there also will be challenges. This can make you or break you in life. But you will persevere. Never give up! Stick to your core values. Remember that the recognition you receive today is the result of your hard work, determination, perseverance, and it will be great feeling when you realize that all your sacrifices were worth it.”
Dr. Hazelton gave awards to the three students who earned top honors overall. First honors went to Loftus, second honors to Menzel, and third honors to Mahmoud Shehata.
Students were also given special awards for top honors in three areas of study. Students in the College Preparatory program were honored by Rivas and board member Jennifer Flemming. They were Loftus, Menzel, Shehata, Nahuel D’Elias, and Emily Pieczyrak.
Students in the Business Education/Computer Science program of study were honored by Rivas and board member Marianthe Manganello. They were Erick Johan Macias, Christian Ortiz, Nylah A. Hughes Green, Karichia Thomas, and Shane M. Bean
Students in the Career and Technical Education program of study were honored by board members Flemming and Sheenaider Guillaume. They were Leo Yeung, Dylan Gomez, Christian Calvo, Ethan Martinez, and Chisa Torto.
Dr. Karen Baldwin, human resources manager, presented the A.R. Taranto Award, named for a past superintendent, to the best all-around student. The honoree was Makenzie Kuntz.
Principal Yelena Horré presented the Principal’s Award to a student who stands apart as a person of character, honor and commitment to academic excellence. Menzel was the honoree.
“This year’s recipient is very special,” Horre said. “She battled through a life-threatening illness, refusing to give up or give in. While others would have buckled, she maintained a full IB course load, bringing her computer with her to the hospital and never missing a beat. I am inspired by her strength of character and her resilience. It is nothing short of heroic.”
Students who achieved perfect attendance in Grades 9 through 12 were honored with the William McMahon Award, named for a retired language arts teacher who never missed a day in his 33 years of service. Assistant Superintendent Denise Cleary presented the award to Izabela Furtek, Alexander Stapkowitz, and Leo Yeung.
Six retiring faculty members were honored with diplomas emeritus from board members Sheenaider Guillaume and Malaysia Thomas. They were Linden High School counselor Helena Augustyniak, LHS English teacher Patricia Gergely, LHS Naval Science teacher Jaunita O’Neal, and LHS history teacher Patricia Zenchak.
An empty chair was set aside with a cap and gown and a moment of silence was held in honor of senior Jade Essence Givens, who died in November 2020.
“You will always be a part of the Class of 2021,” Fekete said.
Senior Class President Makenzie Kuntz gave the farewell address.
“It’s fair to note that we have had a unique high school experience,” she said. “We started off the same way as preceding classes. That was before our world was completely flipped upside down.
“After it all, we find ourselves here under the painted sky and bright lights of Tiger Stadium. As the sun sets here tonight and the natural light expires, so do our ID numbers and our time as Linden High School students. And although the sun has set and our high school journey has come to an end, the memories will last forever.”