High school graduation: A class of activists and athletes

And so, they move on to the next chapter.

Ridgefield High School’s Class of 2018 assembled before teachers, guidance counselors, deans, and principals one last time on June 22, filing in to the O’Neill Center at Western Connecticut State University to the tune of Edward Elgar’s “Pomp and Circumstance,” in the black robes and decorated mortarboards.

They were a class of activists and athletes, artists and performers, Principal Stacey Gross noted. She praised them for their political involvement.

“An incredibly noteworthy feat that you and the nation’s youth have taken on this year is political activism!” Gross said. “Walkouts (that you advocated for and organized) on March 14th and April 20th to memorialize lost lives and to protest gun violence in schools; you held equally cogent campaigns to protect one’s Second Amendment rights; you participated in the student organized ‘Stand Up To Hate’ event to fight prejudice; and you are championing the importance of voter registration for our youth.”

‘Road work ahead’

Many of the graduates embellished and personalized the tops of their mortarboards, the traditional square graduation caps. Most featured the colors and names of the student’s intended college — “Belmont University, thanks Mom & Dad!” read one.

Others took a more playful approach.

“Road work ahead,” read one, in the shape and color of a highway sign.

“The best is yet to come,” said another.

One student embellished the cap with a quote from the Disney-Pixar film The Incredibles, released when the students were in kindergarten school — “We’re dead, we’re dead! We survived but we’re dead!”

Parents were also in on the antics. One family brought three poster-board-sized pictures of their graduate’s face, showing him progress in age from a baby, to elementary student, through high school graduate. Another family waved popsicle-stick photos of their graduating senior.

A few students snuck in beach balls under their robes, throwing them up in the air to be batted back and forth during the ceremony.

The school also awarded honorary diplomas to two faculty members retiring this year — the district’s former Business Manager Paul Hendrickson and longtime science teacher Pete Nichols.

One last lesson

Faculty speaker Jenn DeJulio — a social studies teacher, and this year’s Teacher of the Year — tried to cram in one last lesson in her address.

“Look at me, still trying to teach you all, even when you’re in your cap and gowns!” she told the crowd of some 419 soon-to-be graduates.

She summed up three lessons for them to carry with them as they go forth in life — “take good advice when you hear it;” “spend your life doing something that you love;” and “surround yourself with people that bring you joy.”

DeJulio added a touch of wisdom from her favorite TV show, the NBC sitcom “Parks and Recreation”

“The incomparable Leslie Knope once said, ‘We have to remember what’s important in life: friends, waffles, and work. Or waffles, friends, work. But work has to come third.’ Because it is the people and the experiences that truly fulfill us,” DeJulio said.

She said teaching was “the greatest job in the world,” but emphasized the importance of pursuing what they love.

“I am sure there are some future teachers in the Class of 2018, but there are also authors, plumbers, activists, doctors, and designers. Whatever you go on to become, be sure you love it. I want you all to live a life as fulfilled as mine,” DeJulio said.

‘The quiet ones’

It was also a time for nostalgic reflection on what the students had been through together for the past four years.

“I remember the early days of freshman year. We desperately searched for the elevator that lead to the rooftop pool,” said class speaker Brandon Grizzaffi, recalling an apocryphal story about the school.

“We walked into gym when our intention was to go to math, but most importantly we’ve grown. Not only did we persist when the odds mounted against us, but we achieved many noble goals. When we feared for our lives in the classroom, we said enough is enough.”

He praised his classmates for standing up to bullying, for organizing food drives, and for a dance to fund Parkinson’s research.

But he also praised the students who he dubbed “the quiet ones.”

“Those whose name we may not know, but have enriched our education in ways only few can understand,” Grizzaffi said.

“While everyone was talking, they silently lead by example, consuming knowledge no one could hear. So if you are one of these graduates, cheers to you.” he said, drawing a roar from the graduates gathered before him.

The American Dream

Class President Maia Clarkin suggested her classmates experiences as activists would help them face the world at large.

“Our experiences at the high school have shown us that Ridgefield, sometimes dismissed as ‘small,’ ‘sheltered,’ and ‘lacking diversity’ is so much more than those labels,” said Clarkin. “RHS, its perceived limitations notwithstanding, is a snapshot of the world we are about to enter — a world in which hate speech is scrawled on bathroom doors or in libraries, and gun violence still exists.”

Class Valedictorian Raymond Sun recalled his mother telling him about immigrating from China in pursuit of the tantalizing American Dream.

“I think I was too young at the time to understand what the American Dream meant, but I get it now,” he said.

“I don’t know about you, but I’m nervous,” Sun said. “Nervous that I have to start over, that I have to readjust to a new setting, nervous that I have to, well, be a freshman again.”

He advised his fellow graduates to embrace failure.

“To do that, we must first recognize when we’ve erred,” he said. “That’s all right; we’re still adjusting to the world around us, after all. Don’t lament mistakes, though. Reflect on them. A mistake is only malicious if it does not teach a lesson.”

Caps in the air

Board of Education Vice Chairman Doug Silver had one final question.

“Do you think they’re ready to graduate?” he asked Principal Gross.

“I don’t know, Class of 2018, what do you think?” she asked the assembled students.

The seniors roared their approval. One by one, they were led up to the stage as parents and family whooped and hollered their approval. Then Clarkin directed her fellow students to turn their golden tassels to the left.

Cameras flashed and an air horn sounded from the packed bleachers, as the graduates hurled their caps aloft.