Greenwich High School’s Class of 2020 graduation took place during a drive through event at the Hillside Rd campus on Tuesday. There were no crowds of course, but residents out and about town saw cars decorated with pom poms streamers to make their graduates feel special.
The event was released on Local Live and Youtube, starting with Headmaster Ralph Mayo welcoming everyone to the 151st commencement, notably the first and hopefully only virtual commencement.
Mayo, a graduate of the GHS class of 1971, said that in the 49 years since he graduated, the caring and passion students have demonstrated over the past four years was consistent with the values in place since GHS first opened in 1925.
Unlike previous years, the graduation speaker was a surprise: Mark Teixeira, former first baseman for the NY Yankees.
Class of 2020 president Lucas Gazianis said when he and his classmates first received an email from Schools superintendent Dr. Toni Jones on March 11 saying the district would be shut down, many expected it to last only a few weeks.
“But what seemed like a refreshing break gradually became the seniors’ worst nightmare,” Lucas said. “We did not willingly accept the burden of these challenges, but our only choice has been to meet them with patience and creativity.”
Lucas said much had changed since the class of 2020 began their high school careers, including start time. When the class of 2020 were freshmen, the bell for first block rang at 7:30am, which Lucas said was “a cruel violation of our human rights.”
“Then, sophomore year, after a long battle, it was 8:30am. Now the other side protested, but at least they got to do it on eight hours of sleep,” he continued.
“Freshmen year, the only thing opportunity block meant was taking the opportunity to skip a learning center for a chicken cutlet sandwich in the Cardinal Café,” he recalled. “Then, we didn’t have learning centers any more. And after that we didn’t have chicken cutlets either.”
In the face of all the changes, Lucas said the class had retained their sense of community and made closes friends, embraced new academic possibilities and explored passions.
Like many before him, Lucas said initially the size of GHS had been unsettling, but wound up being the school’s greatest asset.
“Here you can take any class, play any sport, pursue any passion or start any club,” he said.
“We will never forget the unique circumstances that caused our senior year to evaporate before our eyes. Many memories that should be staples of the senior experience are simply unattainable this year – even if you self-medicate by drinking bleach.”
“These challenges have also gifted us with the greater appreciation of the many things we’ve taken for granted. So that when the pandemic finally ends for good, we will re-emerge invigorated with deeper purpose and greater collective responsibility than ever before.”
“These are the experiences that you will carry with you forever, and in turn, they will connect us forever,” he added.
Filmed by his father as birds chirped in the background, Salutatorian Justin Speaker, said when he walked through the halls of GHS for the last time earlier in the week, in the empty halls, “There was no warmth, no energy. In that moment, I truly understood what made the school so special.”
“What I’ll remember the most is the conversations I had with friends, at lunch tables littered with bags from a Rinaldi’s run, the camaraderie I felt while celebrating a touchdown with the best hype section in Fairfield County, and the countless interactions that I had on a daily basis.”
“What I really want to say is that the people around us are the key to happiness and our greatest resource,” he added.
Salutatorian Anne-Emilie Rouffiac said the GHS community had cheered students on.
“Surround yourself with people who will uplift you. Stand up for what you believe in and give back to our communities,” she said. “Never doubt the power of your actions and your voice. Don’t doubt yourself. If you’d told us a year ago that we’d not only get through our senior year, but the first few months of Covid-19, I’m not sure how many of us could believe it.”
Zachary Wang, Valedictorian, recalled transferring to GHS as a sophomore and feeling welcome.
“I know this is a unique time for us to graduate, as evidence for how you are watching me on a small screen, rather than waiting impatiently for me to finish under a sweltering sun,” he said. “But, I want to remind you all that we can and will get through this. No matter how many obstacles, we will be able to overcome them.”
“It’s only now that I realize how much I miss those dreaded long walks through the glass corridor and being late to class coming from the science wing and hearing teachers roll their eyes with exasperated sighs over the same old excuses,” he said.
Melissa Woo, also Valedictorian, said, “I wish more than anything we could have been together in Cardinal Stadium today, or had senior prom or a chance to disrupt school by playing assassin, or with our senior pranks.”
Still, she said there were many good memories to share, including laughing together at SRO, senior dress up day, eating lunch and sharing opens with friends in the student center or media center.
“I’d like to thank everyone who made these memories possible,” Melissa added. “First, thank you to all our teachers who showed us the importance of exploring our passions, and taught us, as Malcolm X once said, ‘Education is the passport to the future, for tomorrow belongs to those who prepare for it today.'”
Melissa said the feeling of facing the unknown is amplified by the global pandemic.
“What comes next?” she asked. “As we face new beginnings in college and in the post-Covid world, we have the power to shape where we go from here. Our relentless consumer consumption has ground to a halt. We are now listening to scientists and doctors…The skies above our polluted cities are blue again, giving us an unexpected window to address climate change. The destructive impacts of income and racial inequality, and disparities in health care are now plainly visible.”
Owen Lee, class of 2020 secretary introduced commencement speaker Mark Teixeira, legendary New York Yankee, three time Major League Baseball all star and world series champion, who lives in town with his family. Today Texeira works as an analyst for ESPN.
Teixeira said that although he knows how competitive Greenwich High School is, the real challenge starts after graduation.
“You’re not kids any more. You’re going out into the real world. The one thing I want to pass along to you is, continue to believe in yourself. Continue to trust yourself and invest in yourself.”
Teixeira recalled that growing up in Baltimore, a place not known for producing baseball players, he finished high school and went to Georgia Tech for college.
“I thought I was a big man on campus in high school,” he said. “At Georgia Tech I looked around my baseball team and I said these guys are all better than me.”
“You’re going to go to college and look around and say, everyone is smarter than me,” he added. “But, they’re not. You guys have just as much talent. You have just as much ability. You have the chance to do something great in your life. Trust in your abilities. Believe in yourself. And good things are going to happen. There will be a lot of failures in college and beyond. But you learn more from your failures than your successes.”
Matthew Tamis, class treasurer, said that the class of 2020 would make two donations to non-profit organizations – one to Operation Hope, an organization that helps families and children in poverty overcome overcome obstacles. The other is Neighbor to Neighbor.
In addition the class will retain a portion of their fundraising money to fund a reunion in the future.
Class vice president Alex Hanna introduced Greenwich Schools superintendent Dr. Toni Jones.
“What a year this has been!” Dr. Jones said. “The class of 2020 has triumphed in the hardest of times. The entire community is so proud of you.”
Jones said the class of 2020 had had to ‘hit pause’ on so many rights of passage.
“For that I am very sorry. You can’t change the past, but you can change the future….Many of you dealt with incredibly difficult situations. From parents on the front lines – in hospitals, emergency services, police and fire work, to babysitting so your parents could go back to work. You should be so proud of yourselves. You’ve become wiser than your years. You’ve learned many lessons that many of us didn’t understand until our 30s, and perhaps, for some, not until now. Your value for family, friends, equality, social connections and basic freedom to go wherever we want, when we want is going to create a new generation. You, who will understand that everyday normal is taken for granted in America.”
At the end of the commencement, Headmaster Mayo thanked Assistant Headmaster Richard Piotrzkowski, who is retiring at the end of the school year after working at GHS for 36 years.
Mr. Piotrzkowski has served as program administrator for science, and as interim headmaster and assistant headmaster.
“I do not have the words to discuss his contribution to our high school,” Mayo said. “He works day and night to make Greenwich High School an excellent place to both teach and learn. We will dearly miss his unwavering support, worth ethic and dedication to our school.”
Mr. Mayo’s parting advice to students was to make their new community a better place than when they find it.
Mayo said a frugal and happy life is his the definition of success.
BOE chair Peter Bernstein said that while the last few months were not what anyone expected, he hoped students would have fond memories of their experience at GHS.
Before Bernstein conferred diplomas and pronounced students graduates of the class of 2020, he reminded them of the district norms: Be here, be safe, be honest, care for self and others, let go and move on.
“Given all that is going on in the world today, let these norms guide you as you go forward. Take care of yourself and others around you. Be a person with integrity, compassion and decency. The world needs you,” Bernstein said.