At 172nd Commencement: Graduates Encouraged to be Active and Courageous Citizens in the World

Class of 2022 Commencement_group photo in Bourne Garden

The Frederick Gunn School graduated 94 students, representing 14 states and 10 countries, in the Class of 2022 at its 172nd Commencement Exercises, held Sunday, May 29, 2022. The graduates were encouraged to be active and courageous citizens in the world by remaining true to themselves, by exercising their moral judgment, by embracing the outdoors, and by continuing to learn — all in the spirit of school founder, abolitionist, and outdoorsman Frederick Gunn.

Newly elected Prefects Alex Johnson ’23 and Emily Chiappa ’23 carried the American flag and the school flag, respectively, as they led the procession of students and faculty from Bourne Courtyard to the tent on Edward Wersebe Memorial Field, where families and friends were gathered. The beautiful spring morning provided the perfect backdrop for the ceremony, which featured a Commencement Address by Head of School Peter Becker, followed by the presentation of the school’s three highest awards and the granting of diplomas.

Associate Head of School Seth Low P’26 introduced Head Prefect Eddie Rayhill ’22 and acknowledged Gavin Brown ’22, Yoyo Zhang ’22, Clara Prander ’22, Serdar Kaltalioglu ’22, Ava Marti ’22, Liam Koval ’22 and Alex Warren ’22, for their contributions as Prefects for the 2021-22 school year. “You are a steady force for good, leaders that we are proud of, and whom Mr. Gunn would be equally proud. You have worked diligently through the year in very visible ways, like leading School Meeting, and in less visible ways that few ever know about.”

Low, who is also the Assistant Coach for Boys Varsity Lacrosse, spoke about the way Rayhill led by example on the lacrosse field, inspiring his teammates by doing the right thing and showing them he was “for the team, on the big plays and the little ones, and that there are times when just trying harder actually yields results.”

Rayhill set a similar example when he was asked to speak about his experience as a student at Revisit Days. “He encouraged those future Highlanders to take chances, to risk embarrassment so that they may grow into the best version of themselves. Whether it be in his role in the winter musical, or in fulfilling the role of Head Prefect, Eddie walks the walk as it were, taking risks, asking for feedback, always learning, always growing,” Low said. 

In his Head Prefect Address, Rayhill shared three lessons he learned from his classmates and teachers throughout his time at Gunn: be true to yourself, be present in the moment, and dedicate yourself to learning. The third and last lesson was inspired by the school motto, A Good Person is Always Learning, evoked by faculty member Jesse Perkins in his Baccalaureate Address earlier in the week, and reminiscent of the advice Rayhill received from his father prior to arriving at The Frederick Gunn School. “My Dad told me that, ‘Over the next four years plus, this will be the last time in your life where the only thing expected of you is to learn. So embrace it; take the opportunity while you can to learn and find what you truly love to do.’ I cannot speak to everyone’s experience here. However, I do believe that this is something that has been ingrained in us here at the school,” Rayhill said. “Whatever your next adventure may be over these next four years, try new things, because it will help you figure out what exactly it is you love to do.”

In his Commencement Address, Becker reflected on Frederick Gunn as an active citizen, and offered the graduates practical guidance on how to become more fully human based on Mr. Gunn’s evolution as a person. Becker began by quoting from a speech Mr. Gunn delivered in Hartford in 1877, in which he said in part: “Before they harden into [adults] like ourselves, let teachers see to it that [students] are thoroughly drilled into the exercise of moral judgment and courageous action in this little world of the school. So shall they do us honor by their [courageous] action in the State.”

“We hope that of all the things you’ve learned here, you’ve had to learn how to be active and courageous citizens in this world, just like Mr. Gunn envisioned,” Becker told the graduates, continuing: “At the time he wrote this at the end of his life, Mr. Gunn has developed a somewhat idealistic vision about how education acts as a way towards active citizenship. But earlier in his life, Mr. Gunn’s behavior was less about informed participation in a democratic republic, and more about imposing his moral judgment through physical violence.”

In The Master of The Gunnery, Mr. Gunn’s biographers shared a story about Mr. Gunn seizing and breaking up gambling tables in the nearby town of Woodbury around 1840, based on a belief that the gamblers’ actions were illegal and their presence on the streets of Woodbury, a disgrace. When one gambler, “a big, powerful fellow,” resisted, Mr. Gunn “laid him at full length on the ground” with one blow of his fist. “So, here we see Frederick Gunn in his early twenties, this young, brash hero, using his physical might to impose moral order on the gamblers of Woodbury, Connecticut. He is 110% convinced that he is right on this issue, and that he is right to take matters into his own hands. But if we step back from the audacity of it, it’s actually a little of a haunting picture,” Becker said.

A few years later, when Mr. Gunn began to passionately support the abolition of slavery at a time when slavery was “strongly intrenched and defended,” he no longer used physical violence to express his moral certainty. It was also around this time that he realized it was his mission in life to teach. “His character — his moral conviction and his willingness to put it into action — is no less strong,” Becker said, but something was different, “and these are things that I share with you, seniors, as you prepare to cross this threshold.”

First, figure out what you are for rather than just what you are against. “Rather than just being against something — gambling and drinking were two things that he was very much against — Mr. Gunn has developed a moral conviction about what he is for. Make no mistake about it, Frederick Gunn was righteous for the good and could even be described as self-righteous. But when he directed that righteous energy towards the humanity of enslaved Black Americans, his soul and his imagination and his heart grew deeper and wider, and was oriented out towards marginalized other humans,” Becker said. “So, as you go from here as citizens, identify what and who you are for, rather than just what and who you are against.”

Second, learn from a diverse array of trustworthy people who disagree with you. When Mr. Gunn became an abolitionist, he “joined a diverse community of thinkers and doers” and learned from them, Becker said. “With slavery he understood that what he could do was stand up to the local power in Washington and call out the hypocrisy of its leadership, and he could get involved in the local station of the Underground Railroad,” Becker said. “He learned from and lauded Frederick Douglass and had a personal relationship with Harriet Beecher Stowe and other national leaders, and he understood that he was part of a whole while focused on what he could control locally.”

Third, choose the path of loving, non-violent action over violence. In putting his abolitionist views into action, Mr. Gunn chose not to use physical violence as he had in the past.  “I think it’s because he realized it wouldn’t work. Instead, he directed that very good, very physical energy to breaking the Fugitive Slave Act, participating in physically guiding humans from the Underground Railroad stop here over to Torrington. It was a local, proactive act for another human against a massive, self-perpetuating system,” Becker said. “He never stopped using ​​using his mind, his courage and his way with words to argue publicly, despite how unpopular that was when he started.”

“So, as you go into the world as these active citizens we want you to be, you can take at least these three lessons from Mr. Gunn’s evolution,” Becker said. But there is a challenge for students living in the 21st century. “To be clear, we believe that each one of you is capable of a life as noble and good as Frederick Gunn, but it’s not going to be easy because today we all exist in — and you were basically born into — an environment that does not want to let you mature into the kind of fully human, love-oriented, citizens that Frederick and Abigail Gunn became.”

To counter this late modern consumerism, Mr. Becker offered to the Class of 2022 three practical suggestions to “cultivate our hearts,” in the words of Mr. Gunn.” He encouraged them to enjoy adulthood while embracing their “child” heart as they get older in the model of Mr. Gunn, who continued to play baseball and go hiking and camping, even as a Head of School. Second, Becker encouraged the students to embrace their independence and try to figure things out on their own beginning this summer and in college; and third, he suggested they spend as much time as possible outdoors.

“You’ve gotten a taste of this truth this year as our school spends more and more time outdoors, both voluntarily and through mandatory fun time — and that’s not coincidental — our founder had a profound, intuitive grasp of just how important it is for every human in the modern world to be outdoors voluntarily,” Becker said. “Doing so teaches us that part of what it means to be human is to not control our environment and to learn to prepare and to adapt. Being outside teaches us that we are resilient problem-solvers and that we need other people.”

“With all that, on behalf of all  the faculty and your parents, go from here, and develop and exercise your moral judgment and courageous action in local acts of human, loving, non-violence and do us all honor by your courage and action. Congratulations, Class of 2022! We are proud of you. We love you for who you are and for who you will become,” Becker said.

The three highest awards
The previous evening, prizes for scholastic excellence and other honors were presented at the school’s annual Prize Night ceremony. Becker congratulated the many students who were honored at Prize Night and then presented the school’s three highest awards to students who were chosen by vote of the entire faculty.

The Brinsmade Prize is “awarded to that student who best combines unselfish and sympathetic interest in people with a purpose for citizenship and social responsibility.” This year it was presented to Alex Warren ’22.

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 Serdar Kaltalioglu ’22.

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 Eddie Rayhill ’22.

On behalf of the Board of Trustees, Ashleigh Fernandez, Treasurer, granted the Head of School the authority to grant diplomas to the great Class of 2022, and Becker delivered the charge to the Class of 2022: “Members of the Senior Class, I charge you as you leave this school to remember. Remember that you have been given much; it is your duty to serve. Remember you are educated; it is your duty to seek wisdom. Remember the values you have learned here; it is your duty to live by them. Remember your friends, those who leave with you, and those of us who remain behind.”

Emily Gum, Assistant Head of School for Teaching and Learning, called the names of the graduates as Becker granted the diplomas. Gum announced that Anastasia Cicala ’22 cum laude was named Top Scholar of the Class of 2022.

View Prize Night and Commencement photos in our SmugMug galleries.

Additional Images

The Brinsmade Prize was presented to Alex Warren ’22.

The Brinsmade Prize was presented to Alex Warren ’22.

The Head of School's Prize was awarded to Serdar Kaltalioglu ’22.

The Head of School's Prize was awarded to Serdar Kaltalioglu ’22.

The Gunn Cup was awarded to Eddie Rayhill '22.

The Gunn Cup was awarded to Eddie Rayhill '22.

Top Scholar Anastasia Cicala ’22

Anastasia Cicala ’22 cum laude was named Top Scholar of the Class of 2022.

Karoline Theobald carrying the Gunn mace

Karoline Theobald P'09 '14 of the English Department faculty carried the Gunn mace in the procession and delivered the invocation and benediction.

Ashleen Hay '23 delivered the Head Prefect-Elect Address.

Ashleen Hay '23 delivered the Head Prefect-Elect Address.

Commencement procession flags

Newly elected Prefects Emily Chiappa ’23 and Alex Johnson ’23 led the Commencement procession.