Palo Alto Weekly

Cover Story - June 10, 2011

'We're one class'

Gunn, Paly, Castilleja join 11 other local schools in celebrating the class of 2011

by Chris Kenrick and Kareem Yasin

With balloons, flowers, music and pure glee, high school seniors at 14 area schools are celebrating one of the greatest achievements of their lives this month — graduating.

A list of all the graduates has been posted on www.PaloAltoOnline.com, along with photos from Palo Alto and Gunn high schools and Castilleja School.

Students at Gunn and Paly attended commencement Wednesday, and Castilleja School's festivities took place on Saturday. At each, teenagers recalled good times spent with friends, honored each others' academic and civic accomplishments and listened to advice that they should follow their dreams and make a difference.

The following offer a flavor of this year's graduation ceremonies.

Palo Alto High School

Palo Alto High School's 403 graduating seniors added an honorary member to their ranks Wednesday.

Eugene Bradford, who would have graduated with Paly's class of 1953 but joined the U.S. Marines to fight in Korea instead, got a standing ovation as he was wheeled to the podium to receive his Paly diploma from Principal Phil Winston.

"I don't need my legs to say, 'Thank you, 2011,'" a tearful Bradford said.

The ovation for Bradford followed student speeches and musical performances in a typically festive and occasionally raucous celebration that packed the Paly quad with more than 1,000 people.

Senior Class President Jack Smale recited various feats of the class — producing dozens of National Merit Scholarship finalists, a ranking debate team, two state athletic championships and award-winning scientists and journalists.

"But what impressed me most is ... we still managed to come together as geeks, jocks, thespians, musicians, artists and more to prove that we're one class," Smale said.

Osceola Ward, a student in the Tinsley Voluntary Transfer Program, described his daily commute from "the cracked concrete and McDonald's ... that served the children of my neighborhood to the smooth sidewalks and palatial homes" of his elementary school classmates.

"I stand before you the humble child of the cities of both East Palo Alto and Palo Alto," Ward said.

"I implore you not to be content with titles and names ... but to understand that success and giving back to the community are truly one and the same".

Quinn Walker evoked the intellectual journeys made in Paly's classrooms — to the Battle of Brandywine, the French Revolution, or the Romanian home country of math teacher Radu Toma — as a foreshadowing of the class's world travels ahead.

"As we spread out ... we aren't really going anywhere we haven't been before," Walker said.

Holding up a scuffed home plate, Will Glazier, a member of this year's CCS Championship baseball team, likened high school to a run around the bases.

"Our journey around this diamond has taught us that being perfect has nothing to do with the end result ... but with knowing in our hearts that we held nothing back, that we did all we could for this school and community," Glazier said, urging classmates to pursue their passions even if they seem unconventional.

Wes Rapaport, winner of Paly's top honor, the Viking Award, told classmates: "If you follow your dreams and get involved in activities you have fun participating in, everything else in life will follow."

Asking all the student speakers to line up, the last one, Chirag Krishna, pointed to his classmates: "Every time I think I've done something well, a member of this class steps up and does it better.

"By the time the world realizes this, it will truly be our oyster. I speak with no shame when I say I have truly been outclassed."

Gunn High School

Amid the cheering and clouds of balloons, and the flowers either brought by relatives or dangling around their necks, the 356 graduating seniors of Gunn High School Wednesday were urged to proceed with the courage that has characterized them in their formative years and to embrace their dreams.

"Courage is falling off and climbing back on again," Principal Katya Villalobos told graduates.

"Courage is exploring heights and depths, holding on to the dream, and sometimes having to say goodbye," she said.

Quoting Atticus Finch in Harper Lee's "To Kill a Mockingbird," Villalobos said: "I wanted you to see what real courage is, instead of getting the idea that courage is a man with a gun in his hand. It's when you know you're licked before you begin but you begin anyway and you see it through no matter what."

Max Lipscomb, one of two student speakers, said, "Roughly all graduation speeches say the same thing: that our school is the best, that our students go on to do many great things, that we will all be friends forever. I find it hard to believe that we will achieve all of those things simultaneously."

But referring to his two years at private school, Lipscomb emphasized the power of Gunn in providing new experiences and in enabling him to deal with hardship and personal tragedy in a positive way.

"The people there knew no hardship, and neither did I. Given what I know now, and given the opportunity to go back, I would not take it," he said.

"We have experienced personal tragedy meant for people four times our age, but still we stand," Lipscomb said. "It is my honor to stand for one final time with the Class of 2011 as we celebrate our separation."

The evening's second student speech came from Reade Levinson, who emphasized the strong and opportunity-rich community that Gunn's graduates are emerging from.

"We started in Silicon Valley, we started already half way there. Challenge yourself to find your own success," she urged.

"Don't spend all of college preparing for grad school," Levinson said.

"You won't look back, at 90 years old, and remember that French test you failed. But you will remember that time you stayed up until 3 a.m. watching 'Love Actually' and eating the best red velvet cupcakes of your life.

"Go somewhere. Do something fantastic. Making an impact can be as easy as giving a smile as you pass someone walking across the quad," she said.

U.S. Rep. Zoe Lofgren D-San Jose, a member of Gunn's first graduating class of 1966, was on hand to deliver a speech in place of U.S. Rep. Anna Eshoo D-Palo Alto, whose appearance was cancelled due to an appendectomy.

"Tonight, instead of telling you to find your passion, Anna and I tell you to find your calling, to find where you can make a difference," Lofgren said.

"Many of you have already begun," she said, referring to the counter-protests held last year against the Westboro Baptist Church's anti-gay picketing.

"On that day a problem found you, and you found a solution. And you let that solution change you."

Quoting New York Times columnist David Brooks, Lofgren added: "The purpose in life is not to find yourself. It's to lose yourself. Class of 2011, lose yourself."

In presenting the 2011 class gift, class president Ori Herschmann and vice-president Paula Jung announced that the $4,311 raised would go towards the athletics department and weight room.

"Thank you, on behalf of the Gunn community, for giving us all of these wonderful memories, and for reminding us every single day that teaching is best job in the world," Villalobos said.

Castilleja School

Iffy weather did not deter Castilleja School's 63 graduating seniors from their traditional parade up the aisle — in white dresses, carrying red and white bouquets — in the girls' school's 104th commencement ceremony Saturday.

Moments after the "Pomp and Circumstance March," showers pounded down on the double tent sheltering students, families and onlookers in the campus "circle."

Senior class president Michaela Wetter opened with a reading from "Just Who Will you Be?" by journalist and political wife Maria Shriver.

"Asking ourselves not what we want to be but who we want to be is the crucial question at every phase in our lives ... because in a way we're starting out fresh in our lives every single day," Wetter read.

Salutatorian Rachel Skokowski harked back to historic photos in Castilleja's administration building, including beehive haircuts and "the girl in the class of 1917 who wore a sequined black dress and her best sultry gaze while the rest of her class stares off angelically in their white linen dresses.

"I love being reminded that those girls were not so different from us today," Skowkowski said.

Invited speaker Carroll Bogert, a former Newsweek journalist and now associate director of Human Rights Watch, said non-governmental organizations such as hers are "the engines of social change in the world today" and noted they are dominated by women.

"The basic values of human dignity must not be cast aside as though they were superfluous matters of soft-heartedness and wishful thinking," Bogert said said.

"They must be understood as central to human security and human development."

She urged Castilleja's graduates to "support each other's causes and careers. Vote for each other, link and like and re-tweet each other's best work, give money to each other's nonprofits."

Validictorian and Castilleja Award Winner Grace Chen said: "With time, classmates become friends who become sisters.

"I can only hope that I emulate your zeal, your intellect, your fire and your love."

Nanci Kauffman, a former history teacher completing her first year as head of school, evoked Pericles: "What you leave behind is not what is engraved in stone monuments, but what is woven into the lives of others."

Staff Writer Chris Kenrick and Editorial Intern Kareem Yasin can be emailed at ckenrick@paweekly.com and kyasin@paweekly.com.

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