Student speakers replayed comic highlights of their school years and reminded themselves and their classmates to face the future boldly.
Keynote speakers did their best to impart words of wisdom without falling back on cliches.
But each ceremony added to memories that high school graduates will cherish for a lifetime.
Gunn High School
To a standing ovation from graduating seniors, Gunn High School Principal Noreen Likins tearfully thanked students for their "fortitude and maturity" in carrying on after a string of student suicides.
Likins spoke Wednesday as Gunn awarded diplomas to 486 seniors in a festive outdoor ceremony under oak trees and a setting sun.
Likins, who is retiring after 12 years at Gunn, brought students to their feet as she thanked them for confronting the "different kind of challenge" posed by the deaths of fellow students: "Pain, grief and loss in overwhelmingly large measure.
"You picked yourselves up, supported each other in whatever ways you could and tried to carry on and celebrate life," she said.
"Leaders among you have created support systems, reaching out to peers. ...
"You helped us all to develop the strength and resilience to keep going in the face of incomprehensible loss."
Four Gunn students died by suicide at the Caltrain tracks from May to October 2009. The events led to a massive response by school and community groups, including formation of a coalition, Project Safety Net, to create a more supportive environment for local teens.
Accompanied by Gunn's Wind Ensemble, Wednesday's graduation was celebrated with balloons, horns, beach balls, pink flamingos, bubbles and flowers.
Many graduates glued messages to the tops of their caps, including names of colleges they will attend.
Another popular message was, "Thanks, Mom and Dad."
International women's soccer star Brandi Chastain offered graduates a list of seven ideas she said have helped her succeed as a player: challenging herself; willingness to compete; risk-taking and creativity; composure; community; communication; and celebration.
"Whatever your passion is — and maybe you haven't found it yet — when you do, spend every single second loving it and sharing it," Chastain told graduates.
In one of three student speeches, Stanford-bound senior Maayan Dembo likened four years at Gunn to a morning routine: freshman year was like a rude awakening from an alarm clock; sophomore year was like "stumbling to the 'fridge, opening it in a half-awakened state and realizing there's nothing for breakfast, said Dembo, who wore a crown of flowers.
"From four years at Gunn, any graduate can at least boast that they're a very, very talented multi-tasker," she said.
"Gunn High School was just our morning routine. The last four years were only the wake-up call for the whole day still ahead of us."
Berkeley-bound senior Pamudh Kariyawasam told graduates they already have accomplished a lot.
"Gunn is full of unsung heroes from academics to athletics, art, ..." Kariyawasam said.
"Never forget that we're not walking our paths unprepared.
"We've already become great, already become extraordinary. All that's left is to become legendary."
Senior Madeleine Traver, bound for the University of Southern California, referred to a recent "very hard fall in my life" that Gunn has helped her recover from.
"I've never seen that kind of love before, and never will be able to thank Gunn enough," Traver said.
"Gunn has taught me that there's enormous strength in being open and showing one's vulnerabilities.
"No matter how weak or tired we were, we stayed strong because letting others down was not an option."
Math teacher Jeanne Beck presented the Faculty Cup Award to seniors Joyce Liu and Jonathan Proctor, chosen for "qualities and principles we value at Gunn," including integrity, personal excellence, lifelong learning, scholarship, leadership and influence.
Likins presented the Principal's Cup Award for leadership, scholarship and service, to teacher and band director Todd Summers.
Palo Alto High School
Clad in green and white, 438 students walked across the stage at Palo Alto High School Wednesday evening in an outdoor ceremony held on the quad.
Before he took the stage to begin the ceremony, Senior Class President Charlie Lin described the experience of graduating from high school.
"It is exhilarating, but I'm not yet ready to leave," said Lin, who will attend Brown University in the fall. "It feels too much like home."
Lin's classmates echoed a similar mix of excitement and apprehensiveness.
"I'll believe it when I get my diploma," said Sattar Tai-Seale, minutes before the ceremony began. "It's surreal. ... I'm excited to be out of the school system for the first time."
"It's a good feeling to be able to make your parents proud," said Helen Gonzalez, who will study premed at the College of San Mateo.
On the stage, speaker Olivia Diamond compared high school to learning to drive for the first time.
"Despite our different routes and paths and fender benders, ... we're all at the same junction," she said. "It's time for us all to follow our own yellow-brick roads, but just remember there's no place like home."
Her speech was followed by a four-man performance of the MGMT song "Kids," which merged into the chorus tune of Lady Gaga's "Pokerface," a reading and reflection of Rudyard Kipling's poem "If" by Samantha Herzog, and another quartet who performed portions of Donell Jones' "Knocks Me Off My Feet" and Stevie Wonder's "Very Superstitious."
Lin took the stage once again, only to jump off and quip to his fellow classmates, beyond earshot of the microphones, "It is on this day that we truly become legendary."
Principal Jacqueline McEvoy praised the senior class for its tenacity, stellar academic performance and personal triumphs. "However you want to see it, it's the beginning of a new chapter," she said. "You ought to give yourselves a hand for making it this far."
More than 90 percent of this year's graduates will attend college, and their scholarship earnings will total millions of dollars over the next four years, she said.
"I believe our graduating class has the talent and vision to help solve many of the complex problems that face our world today," she said. "And it is my honor to present class of 2010 for high school graduation."
School board Chair Barbara Klausner presented the diplomas.
The ceremony was followed by a reception for graduates and their families.
Afterwards students boarded charter buses to Alameda, where they celebrated their Grad Night Party aboard the USS Hornet.
In a sea of white dresses, red flowers and poetry, Castilleja School Sunday awarded diplomas to 60 girls.
The school also presented an honorary degree to Joan Lonergan, who is stepping down as Head of School.
Valedictorian Ida Hempel mused on the difficulty of measuring four years of high school at Castilleja.
"Time is finicky. Its boundaries are fuzzy, its movements as fluid as the frozen yogurt at lunch before it actually freezes," the Harvard University-bound Hempel told classmates.
"Here at Castilleja I have found friends who are equally well-versed in Gossip Girl and existentialism — girls who blog, dance, build canoes, write limericks, design robots, embrace my quirks and delight in being just as quirky, if not more so."
Duke University-bound graduate Bridget Meaney, winner of the school's Castilleja Award for the senior who best exemplifies the school's "five Cs" — conscience, courtesy, character, courage and charity — also addressed her classmates.
"Together we form the patchwork that makes the class of 2010 complete, just as each square is necessary to create our senior quilt. ...
"Of course, comparing our class to a quilt doesn't work entirely — first, we definitely aren't square. And a quilt is very one-dimensional and each girl is confined to her five-by-five box while in reality we are constantly evolving."
Keynote speaker Hannah Valantine, senior associate dean and professor of cardiovascular medicine at Stanford University and also a Castilleja parent, told graduates to dream boldly, embrace challenge and nurture relationships.
"I cannot emphasize more the importance of our relationships with our families," Valantine said.
"Yet it is the area where I must admit that I have failed to achieve life-work balance despite attending every workshop I can find on the topic, and indeed giving structured lectures myself on how to achieve that Holy Grail."
Valantine asked graduates to e-mail her with a "detailed recipe" if they ever figure out how to achieve life-work balance.