Class of 2021 Valedictorian and Salutatorian

The announcement of the Class of 2021 Valedictorian and Salutatorian proved that there are some tricksters in the ranks of the Port Chester-Rye Union Free School District.

Salutatorian Paola Torres had to speak to the principal on the pretense of talking about the upcoming prom. Valedictorian Thomas Ross received an email from one of his counselors saying the principal wanted some feedback from seniors and could he set up at time to meet with him. Both were quite surprised when in fact they were speaking to the principal because they were being honored with the top spots in their class.

“The first thing I thought of was what would my mom’s reaction be,” Paola said when she heard the news. “I was a bit shocked when they told me. I was obviously very excited.”

“It was a great surprise,” Thomas said, adding that Principal Luke Sotherden joked he wanted his input on a speech he had to deliver at graduation and maybe he could help since he would be giving a speech at graduation too.

“What I really want to talk about is how we are in a new chapter in life,” Thomas said of what the focus of his graduation address will be. “We are in a different world.”

Paola has finalized her speech and said she focused on being thankful for those around her and for those who helped her be successful.

The two students were just days away from finishing their high school careers, and both are ready for what comes next.

Thomas will be attending Boston University in the fall and plans to study business. He started his educational career at King Street Elementary School and is hopeful that by time he arrives on the BU campus things will be “normal” after the disruption of the COVID-19 pandemic.

He described the PCHS Class of 2021 as being “resilient,” and noted that when the class were freshmen the headlines consisted of a number of school shootings, including the one at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida that killed 17 people. Now they are ending their high school years following a global pandemic.

“It’s not a typical high school experience,” he said. “We were hit with so many unforeseen challenges, but I also think we are well rounded because of what we’ve been through. It was definitely very challenging.”

“At first it was adapting. Everything was adjusting. We were thrown into this new world overnight. There was a paradigm shift — this is the situation we are in now. Can we make the most of it?” he said of the impact of COVID.

Just as his school was suddenly going to remote learning in March 2020, Thomas developed a bad cough. He was later diagnosed with COVID-19. He had a residual cough and at one time lost his sense of taste but is recovered now.

Thomas used a calendar to note everything he needed to get done in terms of assignments and kept referring to it. He credits this system with helping him stay motivated, maintain his grades and make it to the end of the year.

Thomas was on the swim team for two years. He was also the co-founder of a game called “Stumped” that was played among students. The game was part scavenger hunt where players had to “hunt” for information and part game show quiz as players sought out information by asking their teachers questions. If they were able to identify teachers correctly, they earned points. He created the game with PCHS alum Eli Taylor-Lemire, ‘19.

“We built the infrastructure and promoted it with students and teachers,” Thomas said, adding that the purpose of the game was to allow students and teachers the opportunity to get to know each other better.

“It created a new dynamic and new interaction among students and teachers,” he said. “The best classes I have had are from those teachers I knew outside of the classroom.”

The game was played for two years at PCHS with 300 participants in the first year and 450 the following.

The one thing Thomas said he will miss when he heads off to college in the fall is Port Chester itself.

“It’s a very family-oriented town,” he said. “Everyone is close. There are a lot of family-owned businesses. You grow up here, and people here watch you grow, and you’ve seen people grow. I’m going from people I have known all my life to strangers at BU.”

However, what attracted him to BU was Boston itself. It is a place where he has a bit of a family connection as his mother went to graduate school at BU. He also appreciates the university’s innovation through the years and their being at the forefront of numerous industries.

“These past 18 months taught us life is very ambiguous. You have to adapt,” Thomas said. “Change has become an integral part of life.”

When an enormous change came in the midst of their high school experience, the Class of 2021 had no choice but to adjust.

“With the pandemic and virtual learning, we were very motivated and stayed on track,” Paola said. “Everyone’s goal was to graduate. Everyone had to be motivated on their own. It came down to you having to complete the assignments.”

Paola remained in remote learning through her entire senior year.

“I found I had more time and more access to things,” she said of not returning to in-person classes.

The pandemic was not without its merits in some ways, she said.

“I would say, I think we tend to underestimate how much we are capable of,” Paola said. “If we find something we are passionate about, we can make it work.”

Although she could stay focused on her schoolwork, Paola said she missed being active in clubs. She has participated in the Environmental Club, Italian Club, Gardening Club. All four years she has been a member of the bowling and tennis teams, serving as captain of the tennis team this year.

Paola began her education in Port Chester at the John F. Kennedy Elementary School, where she went to Kindergarten. Her family moved to another part of the village, and she attended King Street Elementary School. When she arrived at PCHS her first thought was she would never be able to find her way around the school. She was excited for the opportunity to have more independence than she did in middle school.

“It really gave us time to find ourselves and do things on our own,” she said of high school.

In the fall Paola will attend Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy to study environmental engineering.

An environmental science class she took in her sophomore year piqued her interest. She credits teacher Joseph Fontana with making the subject interesting. As for the engineering, Paola said she was looking for a challenge.

At first, she had considered staying closer to home and commuting, but ultimately her interest in her major won out. Although, she said, her parents joke that they will bring her home every weekend.