'I was rejoicing:' Ridgefield High prepares for in-person graduation

RIDGEFIELD — In an unarguably atypical year, Ridgefield High School seniors will have a near-typical graduation ceremony this week.

On Friday, the Class of 2021 will take to the field at Tiger Hollow Stadium to receive their diplomas — a welcome depature from the drive-thru model seniors followed last year.

In 2020, friends and family members cheered from their cars as commencement exercises were livestreamed on a series of big screens in the school’s parking lot. This year, three guests per student will be allowed to sit in the stadium, but all must wear masks and practice social distancing.

As was the case last year, the 2021 commencement program has been trimmed in response to the pandemic.

“We have removed a few items from the program ... to accommodate the longer ceremony time because of the need to follow COVID safety measures,” Assistant Principal Jennifer Phostole said. “The Class of 2021 has made a lasting impact on the RHS community because of their ability to overcome unforeseen challenges, their commitment to making their school a more inclusive space and for their general creativity and enthusiasm.”

The school’s 105th annual commencement will feature speeches from senior class president and “master of ceremonies” Charles DeMatteo, class speaker Ellie Carter and valedictorian Kenneth Choi.

DeMatteo said he didn’t expect an in-person ceremony earlier this year, but looks forward to sharing the day with his classmates. “A lot hasn’t gone our way this year (so) to have a somewhat normal graduation is amazing,” he said.

After nearly a year of hybrid learning, cancellations and quarantines, Choi said graduating in person would be “a breath of fresh air.”

“In the winter it was hard to have hope that things would get better, but once I heard the news (about graduation) I was rejoicing,” he said. “These events are meant to commemorate and celebrate seniors and recognize (our) endurance throughout the past four years.”

Carter, who spent most of her senior year learning from home, said she was excited to graduate alongside her peers.

“It’s one of the most significant and distinctive parts of the typical senior experience, and considering how much we did miss out on, it makes this ceremony even more special,” she said. “We have experienced a lot of ups and downs throughout our time at RHS, but we have really come together as a community to make the best of every situation.”

As part of his speech, Choi plans to address the class’ “common experience of COVID” and emphasize how the pandemic acted as a catalyst for academic and personal growth.

“As seniors during the COVID-19 pandemic, we were able to learn about how we learn and what approaches we can take to stay focused,” he said. “Since everything was virtual, we learned to cope with daily struggles that were usually supported by other people. We learned to get through it ourselves.”

Choi plans to attend MIT in the fall and will major in computer science and engineering, Carter will study at both Columbia University and the Paris Institute of Political Studies through their dual degree program and DeMatteo is headed to Boston University.

“The class of 2021 has continued to excel despite the circumstances of this most challenging year,” RHS Principal Jacob Greenwood said. “Their resilience is unquestionable and flexibility unmatched. We are proud of all of their accomplishments and know they will achieve all of their goals in life.”

alyssa.seidman@hearstmediact.com