Palo Alto Weekly

News - May 31, 2013

Gunn High graduates 426 students Wednesday

Speakers from the Class of 2013 emphasize Gunn's individuality, community and legacy

by Elena Kadvany

Four hundred and twenty-six seniors wearing graduation caps proudly decorated with college names and mascots, their necks weighed down with celebratory leis, were awarded diplomas on Wednesday evening in Henry M. Gunn High School's 48th commencement ceremony.

Principal Katya Villalobos opened the evening with a speech that hit a wide range of themes: Stephen Colbert jokes about the class of 2013's technology-obsessed and self-absorbed generation (always "tweeting your Vines, hashtagging your Spotifies and Snapchatting your 'YOLOs'"), Winnie the Pooh-themed metaphors (the importance of being wise like Owl, individualistic like Tigger and a true friend like Pooh) and a line from a Jay-Z song ("Nobody built like you, you design yourself.").

But she rejected Colbert's characterization, saying she's had the opposite experience with the Class of 2013.

"In you, I see passion. I see energy, creativity, innovation, dedication and hope. A lot of hope."

The ceremony was held on the football field, with the main stage set up over the huge Gunn "G," emblazoned in red and white on the AstroTurf. Parents, friends and family sat on the field and in the bleachers, but many left their seats throughout the ceremony to take photographs of their graduates.

In addition to Villalobos, three students and NBC Bay Area News Anchor Raj Mathai spoke to the class. The ceremony also included presentations of the class gift — a new speaker set for the football field — by senior class president Nitika Johri and of two major awards. The ceremony in south Palo Alto culminated in the calling of each graduating senior to the stage to receive his or her diploma.

The graduates began the evening by filing in to "Pomp and Circumstance," tassels on the right-hand side, waiting to be ceremoniously moved to the left. Some wore graduation caps with simple felt acronyms of their college destinations — USC, BU, CP — and others were more decorated, such as with a miniature tree. One cap simply read "LIFE."

Student Jonah Kaye spoke about sometimes-meaningless yearbook declarations and "both unhealthy and galvanizing stress" about school, grades, thin college-admissions envelopes and what students think they're supposed to do and be.

"Keep pushing," he urged. "We are ready to move on. We have so much to push forward to that we can't waste time perseverating over every moment, every frame, every yearbook line.

"You know what? We made it. We're here," he said, as cheers rose up from the crowd.

Emma Schectman, her graduation cap fully covered in sequins colored for her chosen college, Boston University, spoke second.

She said after months of questions about what college she would attend and uncertainty about graduation, the one question that remains is, "What am I leaving behind?"

She said Gunn is set apart from other schools in the area not only by its programs and special events — birthday-grams, Spring Fling, the "Not In Our School" campaign — but also by the individuals who make up the Gunn community.

"Gunn is made up of pieces. There's a piece for every person, every individual. There's a piece for every friendship made and every lesson taught. When you put these pieces together, they create a picture of the Class of 2013. So I guess the real questions is not 'What are we leaving behind?' but 'What are we taking with us?'"

She ended with the sentiment that each student will take a piece of his or her personal and academic experiences at Gunn with them, wherever they go.

The third and final student speaker, Benjy Steinberg, chose to fast-forward to the year 2043 instead of reflect on the last four years. The focus of his speech: the class of 2013's 30th high school reunion, where the "middle-aged counterparts" of his classmates would surely have gained weight, been married and divorced three times, served in the Peace Corps, found God, lost a leg in a car accident or dropped out of Harvard University to become an artisan cheesemaker.

"There are tragedies and there are miracles. But every change and everything unchanged is beautiful," Steinberg said. "As I stand here tonight in 2013, I know that our lives will take turns that we would be foolish even to guess."

But the one thing that's for sure, Steinberg said, is that the Gunn community will always be with them. Thirty years down the line, the same group of students will gather again as 40-something-year-olds in the same place, still connected by their high school.

Guest speaker Mathai, who graduated from Los Altos High School in 1989 and had many family members who attended Gunn, gave three pieces of advice to the graduates: Tomorrow is the first day of the rest of your lives, so seize it; appreciate your parents or whoever raised you; and live in the moment.

"To the Class of 2013: Go get it!" he ended emphatically.

The two awards given on Wednesday night, the Faculty Cup and Principal's Cup, recognized exemplary students and faculty.

The Faculty Cup, established in 1966, is awarded each year to one male and one female student who exemplify certain traits.

"Since its formation, Gunn has viewed education as richer and a lot more complex than test scores and percentile rankings, and our mission statement lists traits having to do with confidence, creative thinking, adaptability, resilience, respect for one's self and others and social and ethical responsibility," said Carole Stroud, a Spanish teacher retiring this year who has worked at Gunn since 1988.

Stroud presented silver cups to Andrew Duffy — described by staff as "the calm within the storm" — and Jennifer Mota Melville, a distinguished leader who is also Henry M. Gunn's granddaughter.

The Principal's Cup, presented by Villalobos, was given to Kristy Blackburn, an English teacher who also advises the school newspaper, The Oracle.

After the tassels were moved to the left and caps thrown into the air, Schectman reflected.

"It's about time," she said with a laugh.

She said she plans to study marine science at Boston University next year.

"It's bittersweet," said Schectman's father, Hal, in between snapping photos of his daughter. "This is what you work for, and then you don't want it to happen."

SEE MORE ONLINE

More photographs of graduation and the lists of graduates from local high schools have been posted on www.PaloAltoOnline.com.

Staff Writer Elena Kadvany can be emailed at ekadvany@paweekly.com.

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