LINDEN, NJ — The 441 graduating seniors of Linden High School went out in style, celebrating the culmination of their high school years in a unique way on June 17 in person, the night after their virtual graduation ceremony. Mayor Derek Armstead, who spearheaded the idea; the city of Linden; and the Mayor’s Youth Commission transformed the tarmac at Linden Airport into a drive-in arena for the momentous occasion. Parents, students, teachers and school administrators were able to rejoice in how far they’ve all come, in their first time together since all schools in New Jersey were closed due to the coronavirus outbreak.
“These children were cheated out of everything,” Armstead said on June 17. “They had no prom, they have no Project Graduation, they were going to be cheated out of their graduation until we came up with the idea of using the Linden Airport tarmac and having a graduation for these kids today. It’s just a wonderful thing today and we’re all excited.
“We’re the first town to ever do this at an airport,” he continued. “We own this airport. This is the Linden Airport, the municipal airport, so this is actually ours. When Linden High School said they weren’t having a graduation, we grabbed the bull by the horns and said, ‘Let’s just do it.’”
According to Armstead, he had to fight for this ceremony to take place.
“First of all, we respect the governor for what he’s doing to try to keep the COVID-19 pandemic at bay,” Armstead said. “Anyone who says they have all the answers to this pandemic would be lying to you. So, the governor’s doing the best job he can possibly do given the circumstances. He at one point said that we couldn’t have it, but I think he gave it a lot of thought after we explained what we’re trying to accomplish here, and he gave us the green light. This is what you get when you have a green light. You get 400 students of Linden High School who are out here, celebrating their graduation. This is a great thing for the city of Linden. It’s great for our students. They’ll never forget this, and they deserve a graduation.”
Linden Councilman Barry Javick shared that sentiment.
“Our graduates are here. This is all about them,” Javick said on June 17. “This is the biggest thing in Linden that we can do to help our graduates, because they missed their graduation, but this is going to be phenomenal. No one has ever done something like this and we’re lucky to have an airport in Linden to do it at, so we can maintain social distancing. The mayor put an excellent event together in our city and it was hard to get because we didn’t know with the time frame, with the governor and so forth, but I’m so glad that everything came through.”
Armstead takes pride in what he was able to accomplish for graduates.
“I feel like I’m graduating today,” Armstead said. “It’s a beautiful thing. I have my three children running around here dressed in Tiger mascot uniforms. It’s a beautiful day here in Linden.”
A beautiful day indeed. As television news helicopters flew overhead, the elaborate event began with the graduates, with family and friends, arriving in decorated cars, showcasing wild colors, banners, streamers, pictures, posters, balloons and artwork. Graduating students could be seen poking out through sunroofs, riding on the back of pickup trucks, and hanging out of car windows — safely, of course.
They couldn’t have been more enthusiastic about celebrating themselves in such a grand fashion.
“I’m graduating, man. I’m out of here!” Linden High School graduate Darren Williams said. “I’m excited. I wasn’t excited before, because I thought it wasn’t going to be anything like this, but it’s actually fun. We’re having a great time out here.”
The cars were parked in rows, with families and graduates in cap and gown enjoying themselves and taking group pictures.
On a platform stage, Armstead, school administration, Board of Education members and even students — such as the valedictorian, salutatorian and senior class president — gave speeches.
“I’m very excited,” senior class President Tyler Farrar said. “I’m very happy to embark on a new journey, and I’m ready to change the world. Come September, I’m going to the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York.”
Salutatorian Laura Robert-Ubaechu spoke about her pride in her fellow classmates as they graduate during such a tumultuous time.
“Even though the recent challenges of COVID-19 have altered this milestone in our lives, I want all of us to take the lessons that this experience has taught us into the future in order to be successful, well-rounded individuals,” Robert-Ubaechu said. “As we have heard on the news or may have unfortunately experienced for yourselves, the virus has taken away the family and friends of many people.
“Even though I have not personally lost a loved one,” she continued. “It has left my own mother stuck overseas, in Nigeria, because she has not been able to get a flight home. In addition to this, my dad works in a hospital and has had colleagues who have passed from the virus.
“During this stressful time, we have had to learn to cope with different obstacles that have taught us valuable lessons,” she added. “First and foremost, we have learned to appreciate our family and friends. I hope that when we move on from this, everyone will remember to cherish those close to them. Another lesson that I have learned during this time, which I believe everyone can benefit from, is the importance of self-motivation.”
Robert-Ubaechu also spoke about something each graduate could attest to during this time: self-motivation and independence.
“Self-motivation comes from the struggle that I, as well as my classmates, have had when it came to motivating ourselves to finish our schoolwork,” she said. “I never realized how difficult it was to finish things without having a teacher there, every day, to guide me. However, as I struggled to find the motivation to work, I realized that if I was relying on my teachers to get my work done, I would have a difficult time in college and on my own. Anyone taking further education or even heading into the workforce has to learn about independence. Being able to motivate yourself to accomplish things is how we are able to improve and move forward. Without self-motivation, I certainly would not be standing here as our Class of 2020 salutatorian.”
Valedictorian Sarah Mostafa gave a memorable speech about effort.
“Master Sgt. Gombocz once told me that grades are a reflection of effort, not intelligence,” Mostafa said about JROTC instructor Nicholas Gombocz. “I have been thinking about this lately, this idea of effort. We put effort into everything we do in life. We put effort into our schoolwork, we put effort into the sports we play, we put effort into improving a skill and we put effort into reaching our goals. But it is the amount of effort we put in that determines our success.”
Once the speeches concluded, graduates received their diplomalike certificates. As their names were called, the students were dropped off at one end of the stage, which they then crossed. As the graduates crossed the stage, they greeted the mayor and school administrators, took pictures, received the certificate and graduation mementos, and walked past three pompom-waving “tigers.” At the tigers, parents snapped photos and collected their high school graduate.
Linden Board of Education member Carlos Rivas came to support the graduates of the Class of 2020.
“I’m supporting this initiative,” Rivas said on June 17. “I’m supporting our students from Linden High School. I understand that, with the pandemic crisis, that it was very difficult for a lot of cities and a lot of children out there to have a graduation, and I’m supporting the initiative of our mayor, Derek Armstead, to make sure that everybody here is enjoying their time and they’re being recognized as our future, as the students that will represent Linden.
“I’m excited,” he continued. “I’m excited because I made this a personal moment. I, personally, didn’t have an opportunity to have a graduation in my time because there were personal circumstances. I had to be in another country at that time, but I’m enjoying it and I’m very proud of each one of those students.”
The event was livestreamed for those who couldn’t attend in person. According to Armstead, future plans may include having a drive-in movie night for the entire city at this location.
Photo by EmilyAnn Jackman and Courtesy of Linden Public Schools