“You’re More Than Just a Student”: MH Valedictorian and Salutatorian Named


Aria Moreno and Nick Laux are not your typical high school valedictorian and salutatorian.

For one, their junior year— the notoriously difficult quarter of high school— was interrupted by a pandemic. For another, they are known less for their grades and more for their other contributions and hobbies.

Moreno is a dancer, having spent countless hours of her life at the studio or at competitions. Laux is senior class treasurer and a two-sport athlete, also holding down a part-time job. In a way, their ranks as first and second in the class are embellishments on an already complete painting of their high school experience, the footnote to a great story, the cherry on top of the sundae.

Of course, they still had to celebrate the news, especially when called to Dr. Toriello’s office for the intimidating announcement. For Aria Moreno, daughter of Hills teacher Mrs. Moreno, this celebration with her mother was in person. Following a tradition set by previous grades, Laux called his parents from Dr. Toriello’s desk to tell them about his accomplishment. 

Though they have known for most of the past year that they would eventually be declared valedictorian and salutatorian of the Class of 2021, it in no way felt like an inevitability, especially considering the road that took them to Morris Hills.

“When I first got into Morris Hills, I was on a waitlist for Magnet,” Moreno explained. She was originally in the IB program at Morris Knolls, but transferred to Hills in her first year and joined the Magnet Program for Math and Science in her second. “I think it’s fate that brought me to Hills, and I’m so grateful for it.”

Laux was also caught between the two schools in the Morris Hills Regional District as a Rockaway middle schooler, but was attracted to Hills because of Magnet, even though that did not seem like a possibility at first. “My counselor in eighth grade told me I wasn’t good enough to even be in the program,” he reflected, laughing. “She said, ‘You can try out for it, but I don’t know if you’d be a good fit for the program.'”

Four years later, the two have the highest GPAs out of nearly 340 students. 

“I was thinking about sending the valedictorian and salutatorian announcement letter back to Copeland,” Laux joked. 

Even now, there are still doubters. For Moreno, it was just this year. “I went to visit my college, and I asked [someone] about the program I’m in, and she said, ‘Oh, that’s a really competitive program. You need a 1410 SAT, and all these AP classes… I don’t know if you would get in.'”

Needless to say, she is in, part of a selective program at Hofstra University that guarantees her acceptance into medical school upon college graduation. Laux will be attending Northeastern University with a major in chemical engineering. 

“With the both of us, we can connect over the fact that so many people have either doubted us or gone, in a sense, to say, ‘Oh, this is hard. I don’t know if you’d be a fit for it, I don’t know if you’re good enough.’ Being admitted, and being here, shows and proves them wrong,” Laux observed. “It’s kind of sweet. I say that in the nicest way possible.”

So how exactly did they get here? According to them, it is not an answer everyone likes to hear.

“It’s so hard to find time [to study],” Laux said. “If you make the most of your time in class, it’ll open up time for you after school to hang out with your friends and do things and truly be able to blossom, not [only] as a student, but as a person as well.”

Moreno takes the same approach, studying less outside the classroom and giving a 110% in it. “If I take good notes, I usually don’t have to study them,” she said. “I pulled one all-nighter in my whole career, and it was horrible.”

In other words, studying for hours on end is not always the answer. When reflecting on their high school experiences as a whole, Aria Moreno and Nick Laux only talked some about the coursework. They had more to say about the teachers who “do so much for us,” friends who helped fill in the cracks in their days, and families who supported them and celebrated with them when the news was finally announced.

Even though their lives are hectic, and will continue to be in the future, Aria Moreno and Nick Laux would not trade them for anything else. 

“When you have a lot of passion for something, it won’t feel like work,” Moreno said.

That may be the biggest lesson they learned from these past four years— the key to doing anything, to defying the odds, to being a success, is passion. It has gotten them this far, and will take them much farther in the future.