With "Pomp and Circumstance" and the gleeful tossing of mortarboards, 475 students graduated Wednesday evening from Palo Alto High School.
Principal Kim Diorio, finishing her first year on the job, said this year's seniors had taught her "the importance of empathy, courage and leading from the heart."
In a veiled reference to problems with student streaking and a federal investigation into whether Paly is compliant with anti-sexual harassment laws, Diorio said: "These last few years have been anything but easy for our school and our community. During this time our character has been called into question."
Events, she said, "led us to deeply question who we are, what we value and, most importantly, how we treat each other." But facing up to the problems rather than "plowing forward as if nothing is wrong" had led to positive change, she said.
The principal, who cracked down on streaking after she took over last fall, obliquely thanked students for refraining from the practice.
"Our respect for ourselves and our community trumps tradition -- treat each other with respect, refrain from offending others and never tolerate acts of injustice against another," Diorio said.
Class members gave a standing ovation to graduating senior Anthony Amanoni, who performed an original composition, "Faith in You," and also to graduating senior Jose Torres, who told of being the first in his family to graduate from high school after five older siblings had dropped out.
"We stand on the shoulders of giants. In my case, those giants are my parents," Torres said of his mother and father, immigrants from Mexico. "They were not able to receive an education higher than middle school because they had to work at a young age, but they always encouraged me to do my best in school and take advantage of the opportunities they never had.
"Mom, Dad, to you I say this: 'I will not let you down,'" Torres said.
Torres, who plans to major in physics at the University of Redlands, said, "Being the first in my family to graduate from high school was not easy, but getting through Paly was not easy for many of us sitting here today. This is a competitive and demanding school. We want to get good grades and make our parents proud."
In a tearful tribute to his parents, partly in Spanish, Torres also thanked the Paly teaching staff, singling out outreach specialist Crystal Laguna and science teacher Josh Bloom for particularly helping him along the way.
"I know that no matter how many setbacks you have, nothing is impossible," Torres said. "I know, because I started from the bottom and now I'm here."
Student body president and graduating senior Parker Devine likened the four years of high school to his memory of going to his first middle-school dance as a seventh grader -- awkward at first, but better and better as the time went on and he made more and more friends.
Graduating senior Kate Marinkovich spoke of learning to deal with life's uncertainties and disappointments and the importance of taking responsibility for one's decisions.
"At Paly we've experienced uncertainty over friends, uncertainty over the rigor of courses, uncertainty about how we'll choose extracurriculars and uncertainty about who we really are or want to be," she said. "Every moment until now has prepared us for the uncertainty of life we're about to face.
"We're about to be faced with the best electives we've ever seen...and there will be no graduation requirement -- it's all up to us," she said. "I'm certain that I'm graduating from high school; I'm certain that I'm going to college...and I'm certain that uncertainty still scares me, but I think I'm ready to stop rolling my eyes."
Graduating senior Lande Watson said she had come to realize that in focusing too much on seemingly big decisions, like college, she'd failed to adequately appreciate the equal or greater significance of "smaller decisions that in totality would determine much of who I'd become.
"It's the thousands of little decisions you make every day that paint a portrait of the life you wish to live, the person you become and the world you wish to inhabit," Watson said, citing the examples of choices such as buying books on Amazon versus supporting local bookstores, or "buying school supplies at Walmart because it's closer to home or at Costco because they believe in a living wage for workers.
"This applies to all of life," Watson said. "By standing silent, we vote for the behavior we deem acceptable. By facing others with kindness and openness or doubt and distrust, we vote for the kind of world we want to live in."
Musical performances came from graduating senior Talia Brown, the duo Remi Wolf and Chloe Zilliac and a rendition of the Paly fight song in quartet by Marcus Edholm, Henry Wilen, Aaron Slipper and Gabe Salmon.
Student Activities Director and Japanese teacher Matt Hall announced that the Viking Award, which he called "the highest honor a senior can get," would go to Marinkovich "for her demonstrated kindness, integrity and commitment to others."
Marinkovich for the past two years has led Paly's chapter of Best Buddies, a national organization that matches students with disabilities in one-to-one friendships with peers.
Diorio acknowledged five faculty and staff members retiring this year -- Earl Hansen, Susan Lee, Mike McNulty, Mary Puorro and Jenny Stone -- as well as Paly's "205 professional educators who have worked tirelessly over the past four years to make this moment possible."
To parents, she said, "Thank you for entrusting your children to our care these past four years, and thank you for raising such great young men and women."
View a list of Paly's 475 graduating seniors.
Listen to speeches and songs from Paly's graduation