Montclair High School Class of 2017 is going places. Some MHS seniors will take a gap year or join the workforce; others are headed to Harvard, Princeton, Yale, Columbia, Cornell, Brown, Tufts, Ithaca, Syracuse, Oberlin, NYU, The Juilliard School and many other institutions of higher learning this fall. Commencement speaker, novelist Benilde Little, urged the graduates that no matter where they go, to “take Montclair with you.” Last Thursday evening was the 150th graduation for MHS, held as tradition, when weather permits, in the school’s outdoor amphitheater.
Julianna Wittmann, Student Coalition President 2017, welcomed everyone to the commencement ceremony, thanking teachers and administrators, and nostalgically quoting Cody from “The Suite Life on Deck”: “As we say goodbye to high school and head off our separate ways we take with us the memories of all the adventures we’ve shared.”
Wittmann also spoke of the impact made by the Student Coalition this year, including efforts to fix the parking situation at MHS. “I encourage you all to treasure the memories forged in these halls and take them with you on whatever path you will soon be heading down,” Wittmann added.
Commencement speaker, novelist and Montclair resident Benilde Little, author of “Good Hair” and “Welcome to My Breakdown,” shared her own struggles of being bulled in school and said that “in the long game, being bullied made me better, made me more compassionate and insightful.”
She added that by staying in public school rather than running from her tormentors, she learned how to navigate and deal with all kinds of people. “You’ve grown up with the same opportunity here in this lovely bubble of Montclair, with people of different races, ethnicities, religions and socioeconomic backgrounds,” Little said. “This is a beautiful thing, this is a challenging thing.”
“Let’s not deny that there is lots of disparity here,” said Little. “A student who lives on Mission Street is not put on the same track or treated the same way as a kid from Upper Mountain. What I will say is what sets us apart from other communities is our willingness to have the tough conversations and try to figure out about what to do about these inequalities.”
Little received the biggest reaction from the audience when she offered this advice to the Class of 2017. “One thing i want you to do, and I promise if you do this, you will be a better human. Take Montclair with you. This diversity, this crazy quilt, is what’s best about Montclair,” Little urged.
She also stressed the importance of being “brave enough to be authentic, vulnerable, transparent,” adding “the authenticity I’m talking about applies to everyone, those heading to the Ivy League, and those heading to places no one has ever head of. All of you will be faced with lots of challenges, no one escapes life without them. We all get knocked down but a successful life is how many times you get back up.”
Cristi Kennedy, 2017 Class President, spoke of Montclair’s rich history. “As the 150th graduating class of Montclair High School, we will forever be a small part of history. On sunny spring days when we got ice cream at Applegate, we were visiting a spot on the Underground Railroad,” Kennedy said, going on to mention Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and his speech at Montclair High School and adding, “Whether you are aware of it or not, the history of this town has impacted who you are today.”
“As we embark on the next chapter of our lives, it would serve us well to remember the way we were treated and the way we treated one another at Montclair High School,” Kennedy added. “Whether it was holding the Park Street door open even if it made you late to class, or posting in the Facebook group to warn your classmates about the Parking Authority, you were part of a community. At the end of the day, there was always going to be someone there to have your back.”
Following the ceremony, there was a brief outdoor reception with refreshments, and a chance to take pictures with family and friends. Then the graduates changed into their Project Graduation t-shirts and went on buses to take a trip to their secret location (this year’s party was held at Liberty Science Center). Montclair came out to the streets along the parade route, cheering on the buses packed with grads, escorted by Montclair Police, Fire and EMS vehicles.
Congratulations to the Class of 2017!