Woog's World: Staples graduation was special, despite coronavirus

Expectations were very low.

The coronavirus that cut like a scythe through all the normal rituals of senior year - internships, prom, spring sports, plays, concerts, even “senior slump” - threated to lay waste to graduation too. If you can’t play baseball or put on a show, you sure can’t bring 3,000 people into a stifling fieldhouse to listen to a bunch of speeches, jostle for photos, and watch 400-plus teenagers throw their caps in the air.

So - in addition to overseeing “distance learning,” planning for a still uncertain, ever-changing future, and conducting mundane tasks like collecting textbooks, library books and Chromebooks - Staples High School administrators spent a couple of months figuring out how to give the Class of 2020 the sendoff they deserved. And the socially distant sendoff our current climate (and state regulations) demanded.

There was no lack of suggestions. Parents, students, and anyone with an internet connection who saw what relatives, friends or some random Facebook dude was doing in New Jersey, North Carolina or Nevada chimed in. Spread everyone six feet apart on the football field! Bring everybody to Compo Beach, where they can sit in their cars and watch a giant screen! Delay the whole shebang until sometime in July or August, when everything may or may not be back to normal!

Compo Beach was out. So was summer. But principal Stafford Thomas and his staff got together, and got creative. They devised a drive-through graduation ceremony, with some clever touches. Cars would gather at Long Lots Elementary School. Parents would drive; seniors would sit in the passenger seat, surrounded by siblings. A police escort would lead the way, up North Avenue to the high school. In groups of three, students would step out of their cars. Their names would be announced; they would pose for a photo, then - on a signal from the principal - turn their tassels from right to left. After that “official” act they would drive out through Bedford Middle School, presumably to celebrate somehow without the enormous parties that over the years have become one more part of Westport’s social arms race.

It sounded like a decent plan, all things considered. Some students grumbled. Some parents lamented the loss of this final high school ritual. When the forecast of rain delayed the event by a day, it seemed fitting: After all they endured, the Staples High School Class of 2020 still could not catch a break.

But last Friday dawned brilliantly. It was the first real day of summer: bright, cloudless, just hot enough. Thanks to a ton of planning by Staples’ administrators, teachers and staff, and the creative, can-do spirit of the PTA and other parents, this year’s COVID-covered graduation turned out to be the best thing that happened to anyone since everyone fled on March 11.

Surprise! Seniors (or their families) took the “decorate your car” suggestion to heart. Each vehicle looked different. There were names of graduates, logos of the colleges they’ll attend, words of encouragement. This being Westport, there were tons of open-air Jeeps, convertibles, and cars with sunroofs for people to pop heads through.

The caravan route up North Avenue and through campus was lined with dozens of inspirational signs, hundreds of balloons, and countless extra touches. The brainchild of Kelly Konstanty - mother of AJ, the multi-talented and very involved Staples Key winner - they sent an important message: Westport cares. Seniors could not read every word, but they realized their community understood what they’d been through. Meanwhile, as they drove through, radio station WWPT played upbeat music and provided “play-by-play” commentary.

Departments, clubs and sports teams had been offered the chance to provide signs too. Music, art, science, English, soccer, track, you name it - they also congratulated the grads. Standing by those signs were teachers, back together (if safely apart) for the first time in months. The custodial, maintenance and cafeteria staffs joined as well. It was a wonderful feel-good, we’re-all-here-for-you moment.

Well, lots of moments. It took four hours for 437 cars to roll through, for graduates to get out, get announced, get told by principal Thomas to turn their tassels, get back in their cars, and get through the gauntlet of many more signs - cleverly created and placed by parents along the Wakeman field - before getting home.

But no one cared about the time. Instead they marveled at how personal and special the day was. Every graduate got his or her moment in the (bright) sun. All avoided the hot fieldhouse, long speeches and bad sound system. More than one older sibling said enviously, “This was such a better graduation than mine.”

No one knows what 2021 will bring. Everyone hopes it will be a “normal” year, with sports, plays, concerts - even senior slump. Wouldn’t it be something though, if 2020’s pandemic-induced graduation becomes the new normal every June?

Dan Woog is a Westport writer, and his “Woog's World” appears each Friday. He can be reached at dwoog@optonline.net. His personal blog is danwoog06880.com.