It was a graduation ceremony unlike any other. Wearing masks along with their caps and gowns as they walked onto the Gunn High School football field on Wednesday evening, the 485 graduates of the Class of 2021 reflected on the challenges and triumphs of the last year under a pandemic that forced them to learn from home.
Planning the graduation amid a raging pandemic "was no easy feat" for staff, said Principal Wendy Stratton, praising the graduates who have made it through the year.
"You have resilient and remarkable kids," she told the students' families.
The last year has molded one of the most resilient, strong and well-prepared classes to have graduated from Gunn, she said. They became "unintentionally equipped with crucial life skills" due to the COVID-19 pandemic and they confronted racial violence against Blacks and Asian Americans to become "future game changers," she said.
"The commitment to equity is a hallmark of the graduating class," she said.
Stratton noted the Class of 2021's acts for social good, such as the football team's participation in Black Lives Matter marches and support for the Asian community as they were subjected to violence and acts of hatred. She also pointed to student newspaper The Oracle's award for its social equity reporting.
"You have been gifted with navigating changes," she said.
Student speaker Summer Steadman said that it has been more than a year since she sat at a desk on campus. During her freshman year, Steadman said she felt trapped by the chairs and desks she sat in. She feared being alone and that she didn't belong.
The next four years became a time when she found and built a meaningful identity, however. There was consistency in returning to those desks; they became "a symbol of community" that became even more profound after she could no longer sit in them among her peers and had to study remotely due to the pandemic, she said.
Through patience, persistence and perspective, she found a new respect for differences and her community, she said.
Giselle Cornelio-Larios, the second student speaker, said that adjusting to the pandemic was challenging due to the premature death of her grandfather. The third of five children, she said Gunn consistently provided her with financial, emotional and unconditional support. A Menlo Park resident who transferred through the Tinsley Program, she "never felt anything but welcome" in her culture, beliefs and ideas, she said.
She took advanced math classes and struggled; then she realized that giving up was not in her character. She reached out for support from her math teachers who helped her succeed, she said. Now, looking toward attending a college in southern California and her future, "I feel confident, determined and ambitious," she said.
English and theater teacher Jim Shelby, who is retiring after 38 years, presented the Faculty Cup to students Thomas Li and Kate Williams for embodying the school's highest values. Faculty and students described Lee as "brilliant and always thinking outside the box" and "particularly kind." A student representative on the Palo Alto Board of Education, he has worked with the Navajo Nation and helped bring them aid during the pandemic. Williams was described as compassionate, diligent, focused and "a natural leader." She's a Youth Community Services board member who also volunteered for AbilityPath.
Shelby urged the graduates to "leave your comfort zone" as they navigate through life. "If it doesn't always feel comfortable, that's a good thing," he said.
Retiring art teacher Deanna Messinger received the school's Principal's Cup for her outstanding teaching career, which one parent said "gave my son his future." Students said her door was always open and she was focused on her students' mental health.
Senior class president Lauryn Nakamitsu presented the class gift: $3,000 to repair the digital sign in front of the school.
As the students moved their tassels to signify their graduation, some threw their hats. But many didn't, as a precaution against COVID-19. It was perhaps a muted graduation, but one the students said they were proud to take part in and grateful for having happened.
"It's just really exciting. I'm glad they arranged it," Anna Gersh said.
Some students reflected on the difficult year and lessons they'll take with them moving forward.
"This year has been hard. It taught me to be resilient and to find fun things to do even though it was tough," said Kenneth Meng, who will attend Purdue University this fall and study mechanical engineering.
Jonathan Lu agreed.
"I missed a lot of the social gatherings, but I learned to treasure my connections," said Lu, who will attend San Jose State University and study electrical engineering.
• View the full list of Gunn High's Class of 2021.