The following is my Commencement Speech to the Pequannock Township High School Class of 2021. This group was a fantastic class who overcame unbelievable obstacles to graduate together on Stadium field on June 18th 2021.
How awesome is this? I have to admit as I stood at the gate to walk out onto Stadium Field, I had goosebumps. I know it was probably a combination of nervousness, anticipation and excitement but to be honest, I think most of it is feelings of joy. The joy of seeing our stands full of family, friends and community members, the joy of walking step by step with a staff that has given their all for the success of their students, the joy of a beautiful night, the joy of being together one last time with a remarkable group of students who are the Pequannock Township High School Class of 2021.
We are here tonight to celebrate your accomplishments of the past four years at PTHS. We are here tonight to recognize your academic achievements, athletic accomplishments, community service opportunities, and co-curricular involvement that make you an outstanding senior class. We are here tonight to honor your strength, your resolve, your patience, collaboration, determination, perseverance and pride in who you are as individuals and as a collective group. We are here tonight to show the world how PantherStrong we really are.
I shared with you yesterday at our graduation rehearsal that I was having a hard time writing this speech. In fact, outside of the introduction, I struggled with finding the right words to say to a class that has grown with me over the last seven years, that has overcome one of the greatest challenges our country and our world has ever faced, that will be leaving a legacy at Pequannock Township High School that will be remembered forever and that I believe will be a class that positively changes the landscape of society as we know it.
I could go could go on and on about the legacy you have left as national and state marching band champions, nationally recognized FBLA members, state sectional and conference champions, members of the first girls volleyball team, Allied Health and STEM Academy graduates, nationally commended scholars, graduates of Morris County Vocational Technical School in various areas, AP scholars, artists, musicians, actors and actresses, the first (and hopefully last) class to work through and overcome hybrid learning and the legacy you are leaving of being just really awesome people. It has been a joy watching you accomplish these amazing things. However, it is your legacy as learners and as thinkers that I am going to remember most.
The past year and a half has been filled with disruptive challenges that have caused me to pause, think, re-think, change, adapt, laugh and yes, even cry. At times all I wanted to do was go back to the status quo, the way things used to be, to return to what I was comfortable with. I was looking for all kinds of ways to become a better Principal, to make your learning experience the best it could possibly be. I read blogs, followed Twitter feeds, read books, talked and collaborated with educational experts….but the answers that I was looking for were starting me right in the face every morning. It was you. Watching and listening to you made me realize that there was no need to go back….there was only moving forward…..rethinking and refocusing what school could be and should be.
I watched you as you made videos for your peers to kick off the school year, I watched you compete at high levels despite limited practice time in sports, activities and competitions. I watched you interact with your teachers and classmates in person and remotely. I listened as you met with administrators to voice your opinions about our schedule, I listened to you advocate for yourselves about prom and how we could make it great (which I will still argue that the magician was awesome--ask David Farrell). I witnessed true learning right before my very eyes. Yes, school is about literature, mathematics, music, Social Studies, art and Science. But it is also about collaboration, creativity, critical thinking, advocacy, and stepping outside of your comfort zone knowing that we have to be willing to try something new, different, difficult or even something that has never been done before. You taught me to find comfort outside my comfort zone, embrace change and learn from struggle.
As you continue on your educational and life journeys, there will be many times when you are going to have to continue to step outside your comfort zone. The status quo is changing every day. You are going to have a different perspective than any student has had that has come before you as you enter college, the military or the workplace. Do not fear standing up for what you believe in, do not fear stretching yourselves further than you think you can go, do not fear failure, do not fear tomorrow because it is the unknown. American author and motivational speaker, Zig Ziglar explains that Fear has two meanings: “Forget Everything and Run” or “Face Everything and Rise.” You could have easily given up this year, run from what you believed this year would be like and succumb to your fear. But this class did the opposite. There is no doubt you stood tall and have risen to the challenges you have faced. Your strength, determination and spirit will have you ready for whatever may lie ahead.
It won’t be easy. Things that are worth learning about, working for, fighting for and living for never are. Despite everything we have gone through together, I am grateful that I got to do this with you, with your teachers, with your parents, with this community. I have cherished every hello in the morning, every conversation in the hallway, every interaction in my office, every game, competition, musical, concert and yes, even every zoom meeting. You should to. Because one day when you are older (like me) you will look back on your high school years and you won’t remember masks, desk shields or social distancing. You will remember those little things like a conversation with a friend, dancing to a Whitney Houston techno song at the Prom, a “yeah white” cheer as you won a game, a few words with a teacher, or maybe, just maybe, a high five from a Principal who cared about you very much and you will realize that those little things, really were the big things that made a difference.
I’m probably dating myself but in closing I’m going to paraphrase a quote from the movie, “The Matrix.” If you haven’t seen it I’m sure it’s on Netflix and I suggest you watch it…..” I don't know the future. I didn't come here to tell you how this is going to end. I came here to tell you how it's going to begin. In a few short moments you will leave this field and there will be no bells, no student handbook, no walls and no boundaries.…..There is a world waiting for you where anything is possible. Where we go from here is a choice I leave to you.. Step outside your comfort zone...have no fear…..Face Everything and Rise. Thank you for being a part of Pequannock Township High School, for being a part of my life these past seven years and thank you for all you will do to make this world a better place for all of us. We believe in you! We love you! Let’s Go Panthers! Congratulations to the PTHS Class of 2021!
We are heading into the last week of the school year. Saying it is one thing but seeing it in writing is another. It has been a year that has put education to the test. Administrators, teachers, students and parents have been pushed to the breaking point and beyond as everyone has navigated leading, teaching and learning together. There have been challenges, successes and everything in between. There have been moments of confusion, frustration, doubt, wonder, awe and joy. There has been disappointment but there has also been celebration. Despite all we have been through, it is a year that we cannot take for granted.
In our district, we have been very fortunate to have had the opportunity to be together in school for an extended period of time despite the pandemic. Technology has certainly been at the forefront of our success with chrome books and cameras that enabled us to "see" each other in various capacities, regardless of our location. It has enabled us to continue to teach, to create, to engage and to connect. We can't take it for granted that this is the reality in every school throughout the country. We can't take for granted the relationships that have been formed with students, teachers, administrators, parents and the school community. We must utilize those relationships to start off a new school year stronger than we are leaving this one. Sometimes we took what school was prior to the pandemic for granted. The cooperative groups, busy hallways, flexible seating, paper based assignments, mask-less smiles, even high fives. Whether we are a student, a teacher, an administrator, a parent or a community member, we must recognize that "school" is different now. Different doesn't mean bad. It doesn't mean it got worse. It's different. It doesn't mean that the cooperative groups, busy hallways, flexible seating and high fives won't be back. What it means is that we have an opportunity to reshape what school can be for students and teachers. It means that we have the opportunity to use some of the good things we have learned during the pandemic and create better learning experiences for our students (and staff). It means we have the unique chance to start over. Yes, this year has been hard.. We shouldn't take for granted all that has been accomplished. In the end, it may be what we look back on as the time that made all the difference in what the future of education will become.
Richard M. Hayzler
A life long educator and current Principal of Pequannock Township High School in NJ, Rich is excited to share his ideas and thoughts about education and how we can change the world for our students and our staff.