Graduation 2020: An Event of Pandemic Proportions

Danny Stock

On August 2, Georgetown Day School celebrated the Class of 2020 with an all-virtual graduation ceremony, per public health guidelines from the DC government. Previously, GDS celebrated the seniors with an in-person Send-Off Drive Thru Celebration on June 7, during which students received diplomas, a gift basket, and the raucous cheers of faculty and staff who stood well-distanced along the sideways.

During the August virtual gathering, students joined their peers, families, faculty, and the six graduation speakers online for a mix of live and pre-recorded content marking the occasion—a momentous one given their graduation from Georgetown Day School at this difficult moment in our world.

Head of School Russell Shaw (parent of Caleb ’20, Maya ’22, and Natalia Stutman-Shaw ’25), delivered his 10th graduation speech, which was not only his first virtual speech, but—as he noted in his closing remarks—the first graduation ceremony in which he left midway through to search his graduating son’s bedroom for his missing diploma.

In his speech, Russell, like faculty speaker jon sharp later in the program, spoke of “world-reshaping” events that powerfully and painfully bookended the GDS journeys of the class of 2020. As in the long life of trees, these events and others leave indelible rings, Russell explained. 

“Each of you was born in the shadow of 9/11, a world-reshaping event that taught us something about fear and fundamentalism, about hatred and hope, about interconnectedness and more. There’s a ring at the very center of your trunks formed powerfully by September 11, 2001. 

“Your current outer ring, the one that is just under the bark, and that is coinciding with your graduation, is also being shaped by global events, in this case by two of them. Your ring for the year 2020 is being formed by a globally defining pandemic, and by a national awakening around racial justice.”

Russell noted that the class of 2020 is connected by those world-scale rings but also by the interconnected roots of personal relationships and what seniors “carry with them” from their shared GDS journey. As he does every year, Russell lifted up the voices of seniors who had written to him to share what they were carrying with them. He shared much longer passages of the seniors’ wise testimonials than the brief samples here in his full speech

Ethan Sze told Russell, “GDS has taught me to believe in myself. To put faith in myself. To be confident. To be proud of who I am...I leave GDS with the same goofy smile but also with a sense of purpose. A purpose to always do better, to always be better.”  

Lila Brown wrote, “I have learned the importance of activism for and with people who are different from me. GDS has taught me the strength in a diverse group coming together to fight against injustice...Being an advocate and a good global citizen is, more than anything, about paying attention and speaking up.”

Noelle Sanderson wrote, “Whether I am personally affected by an issue or not, I leave GDS with the ability to listen, understand, and strategize a plan to move forward...I cherish my ability to think critically about the world that surrounds me, and truly do not think I would be the person I am today without being able to call this community my home.”

High School Principal Katie Gibson (parent of Joy Edwards '27 and Oliver Edwards ‘30) shared—with the graduates and virtually assembled family, friends, and faculty—her thoughts about the dual pandemics plaguing our country: coronavirus and systemic racism. As she pledged to work tirelessly against injustice in our community and wherever she sees it, she chose to name her focus on the importance of building community in support of those efforts. She said, “When I think about community, I can't help but turn to the wisdom of the Black feminist thinker and scholar, bell hooks. In her collection of essays Killing Rage: Ending Racism, hooks writes: ‘Beloved community is formed not by the eradication of difference but by its affirmation, by each of us claiming the identities and cultural legacies that shape who we are and how we live in the world.’ hooks’s words move me on multiple levels.”

Katie went on to describe hooks’s notion of "beloved community” and of affirming difference. She spoke of GDS’s aspiration to create a space where people “feel loved, heard, honored, and affirmed,” and an acknowledgement that “We have a lot of work to do, and that work begins with deep listening...Our ideas around race need to be continually evolving, and we must commit to vigilance in rigorous self-reflection and resulting policy reform and creation.”

She asked the graduates to remember “all of the ways in which this community held you, challenged you, and inspired you.” She said, “Remember the teachers who loved and believed in you, the friends you made, the games you won, the shows you performed in, the silliness, the wackiness, the joy!” 

In closing, she invoked the late Congressman John Lewis’s words: "Do not get lost in a sea of despair. Be hopeful, be optimistic. Our struggle is not the struggle of a day, a week, a month, or a year; it is the struggle of a lifetime. Never, ever be afraid to make some noise and get in good trouble, necessary trouble."

Faculty speaker jon sharp, nominated by the Class of 2020, assured the graduates that if they had chosen him to “bring the funny” or “burn it down,” they would be sorely disappointed. Instead, he illuminated the contrast between the kind of celebration—the kind of world—they deserved and the “dumpster fire” the world has given them. He spoke, like Russell, to their birth “into a crucible” in the post-9/11 world and now how they have been thrown headlong into a metastasizing second American Civil War. He reminded all attendees that there has “never been a moment [in all of our history] in which it is inappropriate” to insist that Black Lives Matter.

jon also assured the Class of 2020 of his utter confidence in them to meet the moment. Like entangled quantum particles, he explained, “regardless of how much time passes, it is never possible to genuinely and definitively separate those particles again...We are all particles in this, my friends.” He reminded them that this world on fire is the world that produced them—“That world cannot be all bad.”

The first of two students speakers, Margaux Van Allen, carried the online audience through stories of her not-as-”slick”-as-she-thought 6th grade self and her current affection for the imperfect place that is GDS. “The mere idea of this school wanting to make us safe is immensely important,” she explained. “I understand that a lot of you know that is not enough and as a result of that, you guys have done what GDS has taught us best. Criticize! If there is something wrong about the action taking place, GDS kids are more than eager to point it out and correct it...I see people making an effort to educate themselves and others. I see people going out together and protesting. I even see people making short films about mass incarceration and the prison system. It feels so immensely impactful and motivating to see this kind of outcry. It tells me that we have a ton of work to do but thank god I am not alone. This is where the beauty of GDS manifests; it is not just the institution but the loud people within it.” 

Student speaker Gigi Silla illustrated the concept of “solastalgia,” a term she explained as “a combination of solace, desolation, and nostalgia and describes the particular emotional distress and disorientation that arises when familiar surroundings become unrecognizable.” It is an experience, she explained, inhabited by the contradictions of homesickness without leaving home and of physical separation in the midst of unprecedented camaraderie in social movements. Gigi united Toni Morrison’s oft-coined statement “If there’s a book that you want to read, but it hasn’t been written yet, then you must write it” with the story of Australian environmental philosopher Glenn Albrecht who, along with his wife, created the term “solastalgia.” Gigi said, “I hope in the upcoming chapters of our lives, we can all take a page from Morrison and Albrecht and not only write the books we want to read, but also create the languages necessary to write them.”

Parent speaker Jennifer Griffin (parent of Amelia ’20, Annalise ’19, and Luke ’27) has served as National Security Correspondent for Fox News Channel since 2007. She worked overseas as a foreign correspondent for 15 years, covering the rise of the Taliban, the transition from Boris Yeltsin to Vladimir Putin, the overthrow of Saddam Hussein, Yasser Arafat’s funeral, and the evacuation of Jewish settlers from Gaza. She and her husband Greg Myre also authored This Burning Land: Lessons from the Frontlines of the Transformed Israeli-Palestinian Conflict.

Jennifer invited the graduates to see themselves positioned to define this movement in a world changed and rapidly changing before our eyes. “What you do right now matters,” she said. “You are already on the frontlines...The impact of the quarantine on these protests and the awakening of America will be evaluated, analyzed, and documented by the historians. You are writing the first draft of history.” She explained that most graduation speeches encourage the graduates to go out and change the world. “But GDS students are already doing so,” she said. Still, she called them to heal the partisan schism further imperiling our country. “Civility seems like an antiquated goal as our political differences are manifested in whether to believe basic science—whether or not to wear a mask...Your generation must bridge the partisan gap and rebuild this country.”

As the names of each graduate were read by the senior class dean Anna Howe, their faces were spotlighted live in the virtual event. Some waved their diplomas (in at least one case very recently located), some were hugged by a pod of family members crushed together on a single couch, and many donned the traditional Hopper green GDS gowns for graduates.

Russell closed the ceremony with his congratulations to the graduates and pledges of ongoing support, from him, the school, and all those assembled on this occasion. He read his traditional closing poem by the late Mary Oliver. “The Summer Day” is about a grasshopper flinging herself out into the world, about gratitude, and above all, about paying attention in our “one wild and precious life.” He invited the graduating class to throw their caps in celebration, and the caps ricocheted happily off of computer monitors and family members’ heads with all the pomp and circumstance that Zoom could muster. Congratulations, Class of 2020!


The full recording of the virtual graduation ceremony as well as full texts of all the speeches are available at www.gds.org/HSgraduation.

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