Amid the cheers, air horns and applause, the take-away message for the Gunn High School class of 2014 graduates on Wednesday evening was: strive to be different.
"You can't be better," student speaker Leon Cheong told his fellow 486 graduates at Wednesday's ceremony. "Be different. The problem is we try to be unique by being better than each other."
The theme of seeking to make a singular, creative difference in the world rather than competitively following the pack was echoed by speaker after speaker.
"We all remember the story of the tortoise and the hare," Principal Katya Villalobos said, addressing the crowd. "In life, we are both the tortoise and the hare. In order for the turtle to move he's got to stick out his neck. There are going to be times in your life when your going to have to stick out your neck. There will be challenges, and instead of hiding in the shell you have to go out and meet them and greet them and dare them to stop you.
"But we are also the hare. We have to be ready at the quick for an opportunity which we can make our own luck. And while we do not have 360-degree vision like the hare we have to observe things from multiple perspectives and listen to many people."
To Villalobos, the most important thing for graduates' futures "is to be kind and to always choose kindness."
"Sadly, you only have to watch five minutes of news or read tweets or go on Tumblr to see all the negativity and cruelty being said and done every day.
"But you have a choice. Two and a half weeks ago we all witnessed our school choose kindness. So other students and staff would not read the terrible messages left on our new building the students ... taped paper over many of them. And then, a sweet memory I will never forget: Earlier in the school year after a freshman student was left out of a group of friends at a school dance, a group of senior girls rallied around her and invited her to join them for the rest of the evening. These are the everyday acts that I get to witness, and it is my privilege to see them in all of you. Please remember, that while grand gestures are incredible, it is those small acts of kindness that individuals remember. They reverberate and they are reciprocated," she said.
Guest speaker Natalie Dell O'Brian, a 2012 Olympian and bronze medalist in rowing, offered the graduates another message: Don't be afraid to fail.
There is a perception that successful people have always been at the top of their game and always knew what they wanted to do, but that isn't the case for most people, she said. Before she became an Olympic-level athlete, she didn't excel in athletics. But she found a place where she could excel when in college, and she failed many times, she said.
"Losing matters," she said, because that is where growth happens.
"Your life experience is meant to be vast, and you are meant to fail," she said. "Your world will evolve, and you will evolve with it. It comes down to living up to your own measure of success. … Whatever that is, make it notable."
Student speaker Hope Schroeder focused on what such a divergent group of students could have in common.
We've ... had great freedom to pursue unique interests, each leading to a starkly different takeaway, from the love of leadership to robotics ... We've started going down very much diverging paths already.
"For better or for worse, everyone started to live their lives toward the end with the renewed incandescence that revealed our differences. Some of us still clinging to the grade percentages, with others of us abandoning them in order to get to know that person we always wished we had. Observing everyone spend their last moments at Gunn differently has been an unnerving reminder of just how divergent our futures are," she said.
The fruit of students' labor is extensive, dynamic and unique. 2014 is a class in which a remarkable one in 10 of us is a National Merit finalist, she said. 2014 is made up of musicians, scientists, elite athletes, Eagle Scouts, master chefs "and inventors at a school I am convinced boasts the highest student-to-iPad ratio in the world."
But with such an eccentric conglomeration of diverse interests and goals and people, what is it then, if anything, that ties 485 kids and 4 years together unequivocally? she asked.
"In 50 years, I hope people will still crisply recall those factors of common experience we all know: first, the highest standards without entitlement; second, the prodigy without pretense; and third, the pride without arrogance that converts from these different paths into a true consensus of what we all know.
"It is my hope that recalling what 2014 knows you will say your peers' collective genius, ambition, and standard of excellence inspired you to become the best version of yourself possible," she said.
Ilan Siegel, the third student speaker, noted that his generation -- the Millennials -- are in a prime position to take the world's challenges of global warming and social injustice head-on, in no small part due to the advent of social media.
"We are the generation that watched a simple tweet help topple a dictator overnight," he said. "We are at the brink of a new world."
Gunn students have also benefited from the school's diversity, he said.
"We have grown up in one of the most diverse schools in the nation, We all see first hand what is possible."
Families and friends of some graduates echoed that sentiment.
Norman Morales, father of graduate Maricela Morales, said his daughter is the first member of her family to go to college.
"It means a lot. She has had a lot of hurdles in her life that she has hopped. I am very proud of her today," he said.
Jessica Cervantes held an air horn while she watched a friend graduate, reflecting on how struggles and determination can lead to achievement.
"She had a baby in high school," Cervantes said about her friend. "I'm really proud of her for keeping up her education and graduating. A lot of people didn't think she was going to make it."
Cervantes said her friend plans to attend community college.
Musical selections were performed by the Gunn High School band, with Sandra Lewis and Todd Summer directing. Villalobos welcomed families and graduates, giving special praise to all of the teachers who have educated the class through the years.
Justice Tention, student body president, led the Pledge of Allegiance. He was one of two students, including Evelyn Vaughn, who were awarded the Faculty Cup, an award that since 1966 has recognized the qualities, principles and values of a Gunn High School education. Those principles include confidence, creative thinking, and social and ethical responsibility, Villalobos said. She also presented teacher Cindy Peters with the President's Cup, marking her as an outstanding educator.
Senior Class Officers Janet Titzler and Nabeel Chollampat presented the class gift, Bose speakers, to the school to make events more pleasurable on the quad, Titzler said.
The real surprise came when students, excited to graduate, took off their mortarboards and flung them into the air. "Wait!" Villalobos shouted, asking them to wait for the official certification of their graduation.
But by the time that final announcement came, more than half of the hats were already off.
Listen to speeches from Gunn's graduation