The Frederick Gunn School conducted its 171st Commencement Exercises on May 30, graduating 87 students representing 14 states and 11 countries in a hybrid ceremony that was notable for its warmth, inclusiveness, and joy.
A little rain and cooler than normal springtime temperatures did nothing to dampen the spirit of the occasion. Head of School Peter Becker welcomed the graduates and assembled guests by noting the benevolent way in which the seniors had gathered outside Bourne Hall, prior to processing across campus to the tent on Edward Wersebe Memorial Field. The joy that they have for each other was evident, and some were seeing each other for the first time in a long time, he said.
Some long held traditions were adapted to facilitate the first, large, in-person gathering on campus since the start of the global pandemic more than a year ago. For those who were not able to attend in person, the event was livestreamed. Graduates joining the ceremony remotely were acknowledged along with their in-person peers as they were awarded diplomas and senior awards, which were presented during the morning ceremony, in lieu of a traditional “Prize Night.”
In addition to those who received academic and athletic awards (see list below), six seniors were inducted into the Cum Laude Society, one of the highest academic honors at the school. This year’s inductees were: Tom Feng ’21, Ksenia Korobov ’21, Ella McKhann ’21, Joshua Novick ’21, Ahmed Salman ’21, and Karen Zhu’21. They joined three seniors who were inducted last spring: Yolanda Wang ’21, Maggie Xiang ’21, and Chelsea Zong ’21, noted Alisa Croft, President of the Cum Laude Society and Math Department Chair.
The senior award presentations were followed by a performance of “The Road Home” by Stephen Paulus, featuring four senior vocalists: Erin-Elizabeth Ryan ’21, Drew Sutherland ’21, Yolanda Wang ’21, and Maggie Xiang ’21. The song was selected by Roderick M. Theobald P’09 ’14 of the English Department faculty, who also delivered the invocation and benediction, and was the keynote speaker for the Baccalaureate Service on May 25. Theobald is retiring at the end of June, after four decades of teaching, including 23 years at The Frederick Gunn School. As a tribute to him and in recognition of his years of service,, the title of Honorary Senior Master was bestowed upon him for the day by his colleague, Ed Small, the Anne S. and Ogden D. Miller Senior Master.
Associate Head of School Seth Low introduced Head Prefect Joshua Novick ’21, who delivered the Head Prefect Address. “I’m glad we can all be together to celebrate the Class of 2021,” Novick said, acknowledging those gathered in person and virtually. He spoke eloquently about the challenges students faced this year, as they returned to school and persevered in a hybrid setting.
“We bought into the community and were ‘all in’ through the quarantines, contact tracing, and even adapted old traditions and norms to this year. We used our setbacks as stepping stones to point us in the right direction and remained optimistic,” he said. “This extraordinary year has taught us patience, resilience, and appreciation, which will carry us to great things,” Novick said.
In his Commencement Address, Becker also congratulated the class for persevering in the face of great adversity. “This day and the diploma you are about to receive is just one piece of the evidence that you’ve accomplished a great deal,” he said. “Well done.”
“The experience of life since March 2020 is the best possible preparation for the rest of life. So much of life has been effectively out of your control and while that has been scary and frustrating and disappointing, it’s been real. You – and all of us – have had a crash course in reality. This year has also revealed that so much of what counts today as progress and innovation actually forms us into people who aren’t ready for reality,” Becker said. “If I have one theme it’s that I want you – and all of us today – to be ready for reality.”
Using apps as a metaphor, Becker made the assertion that real life, unlike for example, Google maps, is not customized for us. We are not given the advantages of knowing how to get from one point to the next, or what roadblocks lie ahead, and we are not, as the blue dot would make us believe, the center of the universe. “As this year has made clear to us, the world does not actually revolve around us,” Becker said.
“As you go from here today, diploma in hand, the world is your oyster. This is a big moment. Pause and reflect on what love really means – that, in fact, the people who love you the most love you enough not to customize life to your every desire, the way an app does. They do not prepare the path for you and lay out with precise detail how to get from here to there, how long it’s going to take, solve problems for you ahead of time, but, rather, love you enough not to do that and, instead, equip you for the road so that you can navigate it effectively yourself, ideally with a co-pilot that you can learn from and with,” Becker said. “Leaving high school is a big moment for a lot of reasons. Much of life has been customized for you up to this point. But that happens less and less from here and the idea, the goal, is that you figure it out from here. Your parents have loved you well and have invested in you, as have your teachers, coaches, advisors, and dorm parents, to equip you to be able to navigate the road ahead and all that comes with it.”
“If, for whatever reason, there is some doubt in your mind that you can figure it out, that you’ve been prepared, I’m here to tell you that you can, but you may need to get some distance between yourself and the apps, or whatever forces in your life aren’t letting you grow and develop these capacities for yourselves,” he continued. “The algorithms want you to need them. But you don’t actually need them. You – and all of us – are so much more capable and strong and amazing as humans than we are being trained to think.”
While that might seem dark, Becker assured the graduates they have beautiful lives ahead of them. “They are more beautiful with a good co-pilot. They are more beautiful if you take yourself out of the center and instead, as many of you have this year, center your life on people, truths, or causes that are good, right, true, sustainable, and beautiful. Your life will be beautiful if you stay true to [our motto] ‘a good person is always learning’ and being A Force for Good,” by following the model of our founder, Mr. Gunn.
Becker left the graduates, as he traditionally does, with a practical challenge: “First, if you don’t know how to drive already, learn to drive. Second, take a road trip of more than 1,000 miles some time in the next four years ,and use a real map, not your phone. In fact, leave your phone at home, as scary as that feels. Third, do that trip with a co-pilot,” which he did years ago, when he and Amy Julia drove around the country in a used Honda, guided only by a map and each other. “Then, please report back to us here in Washington about how that went. We will be cheering for you and we hope that wherever else home is, you will always consider this place home.”
Following his address, Becker announced the school’s three top prizes. The Brinsmade Prize is awarded to a student “who best combines unselfish and sympathetic interest in people with a purpose for citizenship and social responsibility.” This year it was presented to Joshua Novick ’21.
The Head of School’s Prize is awarded to “a member of the graduating class who, by constant excellence and dependability in studies and in extracurricular activities, has contributed outstandingly to the success of the school year.” The prize was awarded to Ella McKhann ’21.
The Gunn Cup is awarded to “that student who, through character and achievement, shall have contributed most largely to the success of the school year.” It was awarded to Anjavie Thompson ’21.
On behalf of the Board of Trustees, Patrick Dorton ’86, Board Chair, granted the Head of School the authority to confer diplomas to the great Class of 2021. To the class, Becker gave the charge that has echoed on our campus for more than 40 years, since the headship of Michael Eanes H’90 P’90 GP’20 ’23 and handed diplomas to each graduate as Amy Paulekas, Director of Studies, called their names. In keeping with tradition, the final diploma was awarded to the Top Scholar of the senior class. The Top Scholar of the Class of 2021 was Yolanda Wang ’21.
Congratulations to The Frederick Gunn School Class of 2021