There was little out of the ordinary on Wednesday evening in the sea of green caps and gowns at Palo Alto High School. Beyond the students donned in masks, the 6-feet-apart seats and a venue change to the Viking Stadium, speakers delivered their planned speeches and graduates walked across the grass to "Pomp and Circumstance" just as they rehearsed.
But for the graduates, it was still a surreal occasion.
"I don't think anyone thought this is what our final year would look like," said Avantika Singh, Paly's Associated Student Body president and a graduating senior. "While it started quite boring for most of us with shelter-in-place and online classes, I'm glad it's ending like this."
About 2,000 people gathered on Paly's football field to commemorate the achievements of the graduating class's 523 students. Even with the high school's reopening in March, the ceremony was the largest gathering at Paly since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic. And for many students and administrators in attendance, it was the first and last time they would be next to so many of their peers all at once.
The football field where graduates accepted their ceremonial diplomas stretched from end to end with physically distanced seats — students taking up one half of the field and families and friends taking up the other half. Some cheered all the way from the end zone.
"To be here in person with a live graduation — it's spectacular," said Amy Friedman, a Paly parent who volunteered for the graduation ceremony and watched her son, Aaron Kim, walk across the stage from the sidelines.
Though the pandemic brought on more than a year of setbacks, disappointments and incalculable losses, speeches from student and school leaders mostly highlighted how they were together in person, savoring what today feels like a novelty experience and hopefully tomorrow will once again be normal.
Jonathan Sneh, the student speaker of the night, used Spikeball — a popular campus sport — as the emblem of "the best things about Paly" and the Class of 2021.
"Our community is strong, and anyone can feel welcome and be a part of it, just like with Spikeball," Sneh said. "I can come up to anyone with a ball in hand and ask them if they want to play and we'll be rallying in seconds."
The ceremony also offered a brief moment of redemption for the Class of 2020, which was recognized at a citywide car parade last year instead of a traditional graduation. Pooja Akella, last year's Associated Student Body president, and Frida Rivera, the previous senior class president, accepted an honorary diploma that included engravings of the names of the 2020 graduating seniors on the frame.
In their joint speech, Akella and Rivera recognized that there was only so much more they knew than this year's graduating class and little more advice they could give since they too spent their freshman year in college at home with their parents. But they did offer one piece of advice: "Keep in touch.
"Don't view graduation as a closure," they said, encouraging departing seniors to maintain a connection to the Paly community. "View it as a chapter in an unfinished book, waiting for you to write the next chapter."
The ceremony was also a particularly significant moment for Paly's new principal, Brent Kline, who joined the campus last July.
"The first day of school was probably the most depressing first day of school as a principal I've ever had," he said in his address.
Coming from the most "quietest" first day of school, Kline acknowledged to the Class of 2021 that although this is the end of their high school career, it's also the "beginning of reconnection."
"We've all been separated for way too long," Kline said.
In her recognition that "nothing went as planned" this school year, 2021 senior class president Emma Lin referenced the song "High Hopes and Low Expectations" by country singer Zane Williams to describe the past year.
"Except I would add that we've all gotten a lot of extra help in keeping our hopes high. … Class of 2021, I'll keep my expectations low and my hopes high for you," she said, closing the ceremony.
• View the full list of Palo Alto High's Class of 2021.