On their black graduation caps, in student speeches and with each other, Gunn High School's Class of 2015 celebrated their individuality, creativity, resilience and togetherness at graduation Wednesday night.
Instead of college names and logos, many of the seniors' caps were decorated with phrases like "There is no hurry, we will get there some day," "Adventure is out there," and "We're more than meets the eye." Another cap had been turned into a QR code; others riffed on popular rap songs ("I got 99 problems but a diploma ain't one"). Another simply read, "Black Lives Matter."
The Class of 2015 had agreed beforehand to forego college-related decorations for, really, anything else. It was an emblematic end to a school year so defined by charged community conversations about academic stress, hyper-achievement and student well-being.
Gunn's three student graduation speakers recognized this, urging their classmates to take what they have learned in their four years at Gunn from resilience and empathy to imperfection and activism and go forth to share that with whatever world they will be a part of next.
"As we all go our separate ways, be it into the workforce, on a gap year, to a research university, liberal arts college, community college, even traveling the world, never forget the bravery you possess," Allyna Moto-Melville told her classmates, urging them to carry on a Gunn legacy, started by her great-grandfather, Henry M. Gunn, of believing "that everyone (has) a little nugget of good inside of them."
Speaker Michelle Zhang asked the graduating class to consider the question: "What is the most valuable work you've done at Gunn?" She recalled a satirical graph drawn on a teacher's whiteboard representing the spectrum of students' varying efforts, responsibilities and sacrifices. On one end was a cartoon of a student smoking with "apathy" written above him in large letters; on the other, a student with bloodshot eyes and frazzled hair exclaiming, "Why be happy when I can be perfect instead?"
"I found that a lot of people assumed Gunn students are the crazy kid with bloodshot eyes, that we're the kids with ambition without perspective," Zhang said, "and maybe some of us were at some point. And maybe we were also that apathetic kid at another point. But right now, at this moment, I can't think of anyone graduating today who is either of these people.
"So if we aren't these imbalanced caricatures, what are we? What is balance? What comes with achievement?"
The answer to these seemingly unanswerable questions, she said, lay between those two extremes. Between there is friends, laughter, imperfection, "glorious mistakes," fierce activism, empathy, courage and, finally, love.
"I could only think of how we've become a loving community that is ambitious with perspective, a community that is courageous, friendly, empathetic and imperfect," Zhang said. "To answer the question on the balance of life -- we constantly strive for balance through each other, even if we stumble and fall. We achieve this balance when we love each other and help each other up.
"As for the most valuable thing we've learned, it was the creation of this Gunn community -- not geometry, not 'The Scarlet Letter,' not ecological niches. It was the work we put into each other," Zhang said.
Speaker Maya Ram -- reflecting on the various changes the senior class saw themselves and their school go through over the past four years, from construction to a new bell schedule to be launched in the fall -- described how a graduating class sits on the line between past and future, tradition and innovation. But above all else, she said, "Remember where you came from ... remember what it means to be a Titan."
To retiring mathematics teacher Peter Herreshoff, who presented Gunn's Faculty Cup Award to two outstanding seniors on Wednesday night, being a Titan also means disobeying conventional wisdom. Holding up the class of 2015's official T-shirts red with the text "d15obey" emblazoned across -- he hailed Gunn students' advocacy in opposition to Superintendent Max McGee's recent ban of academic classes during zero period in the same breath as he talked about Edward Snowden's release of classified National Security Agency information to the public.
Herreshoff then presented the Faculty Cup Award to Rose Weinmann and Danny Golovinsky, whom he described as "exemplars" of the class as a whole. They were recognized by their teachers for their "self-confidence, self-expression, creative thinking, adaptability, respect for one's self and others, and social and ethical responsibility" throughout their high school careers.
Weinmann, Gunn's student representative to the school district Board of Education, is also a four-year member of the Model United Nations club, active in student government, has volunteered in schools in Nepal, wrote a letter to the editor that was published in The New York Times this year. She also overcame adversity, "educating herself from her sick bed" after a surgery sophomore year, Herreshoff said.
Golovinsky, president of student group Reach Out Care Know, or ROCK -- words he proudly donned on his graduation cap -- "has gone from fearing bullying at his previous school to one of the most important and well-respected students on this campus, one who is committed to wellness and inclusion at the individual and community levels." Herreshoff said. Golovinsky is a frequent presence at school board meetings, is active in choir, served two years as the student government's diversity commissioner and has helped plan events like Unity Day and Not In Our Schools Week.
Science teacher Maria Powell was also recognized with Gunn's annual "Principal's Cup" award, given to one outstanding teacher at graduation each year. More than 12 Gunn staff, parents and students wrote letters of support to nominate Powell for the award, "praising her ability to connect with students on both an academic and social-emotional level," Principal Denise Herrmann said.
"Before making sure that our grades are OK, she wants to make sure that we're OK," one student wrote in support of Powell, Herrmann said.
In a similar vein, guest speaker Kevin Surace, a serial entrepreneur and founder of Appvance, a software test platform, told students that it is their EQ (emotional intelligence), not their IQ that will differentiate them in life after high school.
And despite citing a study that indicated the one common thread between the most successful people in the United States is strong connections to a wide network of people, Surace told Gunn's graduating seniors, families and teachers, "Real success in your life is defined by happiness."
"Career certainly can add to your happiness, and you might invent new products or manage people or create new marketing messages or sell products or teach students, but whatever it is, be sure you pursue and excel at the items which make you the most happy," Surace said.
His message was echoed by at least one student's decorated mortarboard cap, which advocated, "Do what makes you happy."