A simple greeting framed the hardest question that students at Henry M. Gunn High School were asked all year: "How are you, really?"
On Wednesday evening, as the Gunn community celebrated its 514 graduates, student and speaker Grace Park reflected on the way in which that question, asked over and over, had played a role in connecting members of the Class of 2016.
"So how are we, really?" asked Park. "There is too much to say and too little space to say it in."
"We've opened up and trusted each other with what we've revealed," she said.
Park added that she hoped the question would continue to play a role in her classmates' lives when they are in college.
"What happens to our trust next year? ... We need to open up and spread it," she said, urging them to listen if someone says he or she is "just OK."
"Trust," she said, "is the most powerful catalyst for connection."
Other speakers also talked about how they envisioned applying the lessons they have learned amid sometimes trying emotional times at Gunn. Hayley Krolik was one of the three student speakers.
"It's no secret that our time was especially trying and turbulent," she said. However, "our class is comprised of pioneers. We took the initiative of changing the narrative.
"We are fighters," she said.
At times students felt down and frustrated at the unpredictability of their high school, which saw numerous changes in recent years, including a new block schedule and new rules governing zero period.
"Change isn't easy," she said. But she encouraged her peers to recognize how change and adversity had challenged them and to take their strengths into the future and apply them.
Grace Kuffner, another student, discussed the value of failure.
"Failure is completely and utterly inevitable in life. ... The more challenges we invite in our lives, the more failure we face as well," she said.
But failure can be good, and she named a few famous and accomplished people who initially failed miserably, including Walt Disney and J.K. Rowling.
Guest speaker Rick Porras, a 1984 Gunn graduate who is now a Hollywood film producer whose credits include "The Lord of the Rings" and "Contact," said he made the mistake of relying on the past to define himself after graduation. Then he dropped out of college.
His travels afterward helped him to look at life through a different lens, which allowed him to find his passion, he said.
While on location in New Zealand, people would define themselves by saying they rode horses or played cricket when asked what they do.
"No one said, 'I'm a doctor or a lawyer,'" even if that's what they did for a living, he said.
Porras recalled the time a high school buddy was having personal problems.
"He did the one thing that is so hard in life. He reached out. ... And he was able to see in that moment that he was loved," Porras said. "He reminded us that we are not alone. We are all family and we have each other's back.
Teacher Jim Shelby, while presenting the Faculty Cup award to outstanding students Grace Park and Kelby Senter, also spoke about the gift of failure as a motivation to do one's best.
"There will be loss; there will be frustration; there will be difficulty. I hope there will be, because if not, you're not working hard enough. What brings out your best sometimes is failure. Failure is good for you," he said. "Failure isn't fatal. If I was running this high school, I would make it a high school graduation requirement that you have to have three big mistakes on your transcript to graduate."
The Principal's Cup award for outstanding teaching went to English teacher Mark Hernandez, and the Class of 2016's class gift was a purchase of furniture and other items for the campus' future wellness center.
After mortarboards flew in the air, students said they were taking the messages they heard to heart.
"It's been a lot of work," said Michael Dresser, who will be attending Colorado University at Boulder to study computer science. Grace Park's speech was funny "while hitting close to home," he said.
For Dillon Yang, a business major, how failure links up to success was the most compelling message.
"You shouldn't be afraid to try new things," he said.
Rabecca Chepkoech Biketi, who will attend the University of Kansas to study architecture, said graduation has "meant so much to me. I've been waiting for this moment."
And "every single thing" in the speeches resonated with her, she said.
"It's about unifying with each other and to be there for each other," she said.
Want to see more photos from Gunn's graduation? Go to the Palo Alto Weekly's collection of social media posts on Storify.