By ERIN ROLL
roll@montclairlocal.news

It was a festive night Thursday as 516 members of Montclair High School's Class of 2018 began the next chapter of their lives.

Amid the pomp and circumstance of the traditional graduation ceremony in the MHS amphitheater, however, was a reminder that the graduates, and their generation, must do what is right in an increasingly turbulent world and political climate.

Daniel Banks, president of the student coalition, was the first speaker of the night. He noted in his speech that some students had had an easier path to graduation than others did.

“At the end of the day, life isn’t fair. For example, we couldn’t all be best friends with the principal’s son,” he said as the audience laughed.

Banks said that he and his classmates, with the prospect of a celebration ahead of them, couldn’t help but look back over the years, from counting out time in 44-minute class periods and longing for end-of-year freedom, to enjoying what little time remains left for them together.

“But tonight let us forget about all that, and instead, simply celebrate our accomplishments. And no matter how fast, or busy our lives get from today, let us remember to stop, and enjoy ourselves once in a while.” He concluded, “Wherever we go, and whatever we do, may we always be friends and may we meet again.”

READ MORE: Photo gallery from Thursday night's commencement ceremony

Thursday’s ceremony was also the last time James Earle presented a graduation speech as MHS’s principal. Earle has accepted a new position as assistant superintendent in the West Windsor-Plainsboro school district.

He told the class that the year had presented the class with many challenges and concerns to be met. “And in typical Montclair High School fashion, you expressed your concerns, partnered with administrators, and teachers, and met those challenges head-on.”

He continued, “You ensured that this would be the best year, with your commitment to academics, dedication to service, your enthusiasm for Montclair High School. Most of all, you have led on civil rights issues, school safety issues and women’s rights issues.”

This winter, MHS students conducted a walkout in the aftermath of the Feb. 14 shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida.

He continued, “As you protest, walk out, and stand up for what you believe, make sure you take action when no one is watching. I challenge you to live action by being a force for others, or for a cause that makes you better. We will need every one of you in the Class of 2018 being on the same page to make our world and our community safer.”

Earle became visibly emotional at several moments during his speech. “In closing, I want to thank you for allowing me and my family...” he paused to compose himself, as the graduates and the audience erupted in applause. “I want to thank you for allowing me and my family for being a part of your lives for the last four years.”

Former U.S. attorney Paul Fishman, also a Montclair resident, was the guest speaker.

Fishman told the class that he was dispensing with the usual trends in graduation speeches - encouraging students to aim high, don’t be afraid of failure, and so forth - because he believed that the MHS graduates already knew all of those things.

The United States was facing a long list of problems, Fishman said, including increased hate crimes, gun violence, an administration that had eroded relationships with the United States’ allies while becoming friendly with certain regimes, climate change, and the ongoing separation of children from their parents at the border.

Like Earle, Fishman praised the class for their work in activism. “You marched, you walked out, you spoke up,” he said. And it was going to be up to their generation to fix the problems facing the world.

Fishman praised Earle and the staff for helping get the students to where they were. He also praised the parents - and threw in a few jokes about graduation venue frustrations. “Let me acknowledge one more group that got you here. All those people, sitting out there, and up there, all those people with obstructed views,” he said as the audience laughed. “Some grumbling that this event should be taking place on a football field, where they can see! Others wondering, ‘Why is it harder to get a ticket for this than for “Hamilton?” Or Springsteen on Broadway?”

Last of all came class president Blythe Bahramipour. “I truly can’t believe we’re graduating. This day has been long on the horizon, and it is finally here,” she said. To the audience, she said, “We stand on the shoulders of your community and we hope to make you all proud.”

Bleacher seats draw mixed reviews

Last year, large numbers of parents were left standing outside the amphitheater when the venue became filled to capacity. This year, the school got permission from the township to close off Park Street and to set up bleachers, holding about 600 people.

However, the bleachers met with mixed reviews from some members of the audience.

The bleachers had been positioned facing west, toward the amphitheater. The time of day and the height of the buildings meant that people sitting in the bleachers had the sun in their faces for a good part of the ceremony, and many could be seen fanning themselves.

“I think they did the best they could with the best they had, but I think they should use the football stadium,” said Diane Enright, referring to the high school's Woodman Field several blocks away. Enright, whose son Jason was graduating, started out sitting in the bleachers, but moved to the overflow seating area in the auditorium after the bleachers got too hot.

Even with the bleachers, the amphitheater rapidly filled to capacity, and there were still large overflow crowds standing at the back of the amphitheater and out on Park Street.

There has been a running debate among Montclair residents about whether to continue using the amphitheater for graduation ceremonies or move them to another venue, like Woodman Field. Those arguing in favor of a larger venue have asserted that the amphitheater can no longer accommodate the large numbers of graduates and their families. Supporters of the amphitheater, however, have said that using the traditional venue is too important to do away with.

One grandmother who identified herself only as Jami said that the sun was also an issue. “Maybe if they had more covering [over the bleachers], it wouldn’t be so bad.”

“How come they didn’t have it in the football stadium? It doesn’t make sense,” asked Gerald Johnson, whose daughter, Bria, was graduating. He said that the district wasn’t making enough use of its available facilities. “If everyone wants to come and they see there’s a turnout, you’ve got to think of the people rather than the event.” When asked if he was able to see the screen, he said that he was at certain moments.

Brooke Williams, whose daughter Maya was graduating, said that she had planned to sit in the bleachers, but reconsidered after she saw people fanning themselves.

“It was good. A lot of people got to sit down that weren’t going to,” said Ron Handelman, whose daughter Rachel was graduating. “It was good, it was a fast solution.”