Paly graduates celebrate individualism, spirit

Student-speakers talk about embracing change, overcoming fear and leaving a lasting legacy

Spirited, compassionate, enthusiastic for change, defiant of fear — these are a few of the qualities of the Palo Alto High School Class of 2016, according to three seniors who spoke at graduation Wednesday.

Amid powerful reflection and plenty of excitement about what the future holds for the school's 509 graduating seniors, the three urged their classmates to hold onto these attributes beyond high school, wherever they are headed.

William Zhou, student-body president, kicked off the evening with an unexpected question: Will we be remembered?

He noted that a decade from now, future Paly students won't even know that the school's 86-year-old gym, demolished this school year to make way for a state-of-the-art athletic center, even existed, much less know its history.

"If the historic, 86-year-old gym that housed Jeremy Lin and countless memories can apparently be so easily forgotten, it seems certain that despite being the best class Paly has ever seen," he said to laughs and cheers from his classmates, "we, too, will disappear into the dark depths of history."

But what will persist, he said, is what stands out to him most about his classmates: their "unforgettable spirit." The nature of this spirit is hard to quantify or put into words, he said, but is evident in the impact the graduating seniors have had in their homes, communities and on campus.

"Time ... tend(s) to forget names. Making an impact, however, is the precursor to being remembered," Zhou said.

"When you work to improve your surroundings, even if you are forgotten, your decisions and actions won't be, as they'll continue to shape the lives and experiences of those around you," he continued. "And that's what's truly important."

Student-speaker Lauren Klass similarly urged the Class of 2016 to not adhere to the cliched instruction frequently given to graduates — to go out and change the world — but rather to their own versions of change and success, whatever they may be.

Growing up in Silicon Valley, where teenagers "live and breathe a very narrow definition of success," it's important to remember that achieving greatness can take many forms, she said.

"We're neighbors with some of the most legendary entrepreneurs — some young and fresh out of college, some who never even finished college. That may or may not end up being your path. Either way, it's OK. In fact, it's more than OK. It's good. It's great. It's actually whatever you want it to be," Klass said.

"What happens over the next four years and in the years and years after that -- it's up to you," she added.

Oscar Vargas Jr., the final student speaker, reflected on the ways fear had held him back during high school (not talking to the girl he liked) and the times when he overcame fear (delivering a presentation he had desperately tried to get out of in the sophomore year).

Fear has no place in his future, nor in the futures of his classmates, he said. He urged them to face challenges head-on rather than shy away from them.

"As the first person in my family to attend a university, I will not and cannot let fear stand in my way," Vargas said.

The ceremony also included performances by all the senior members of the Paly choir, who in a large group on stage sang Walk the Moon's "Shut Up and Dance with Me," and by senior Natalie Snyder, who sang and played on guitar a song aptly called "We Don't Have to Be Ordinary."

Paly Principal Kim Diorio began the evening with a list of reasons for "why it's great to be a Viking." The list included a strong school culture that allows for and emphasizes student freedom; "tremendous spirit and pride"; dedicated teachers, staff and parents; and a deep caring for others.

She pointed to Sources of Strength, a new peer-led suicide-prevention program the school launched this year. Seventy students became peer leaders for the program — more than twice the number needed, Diorio said.

Paly will always be a second home to its graduates, she said, telling the Class of 2016: "You are always welcome here."

Senior Diana Rodriguez told the Weekly after the ceremony that Paly had already been like a second home to her.

"I will miss Paly a lot," said Rodriguez, who is attending San Francisco State University this fall.

Senior Mikaela Simison, who will attend the University of Arizona, offered one word after the ceremony to describe the feeling of the day: "powerful."

"We did it. We graduated high school," she told the Weekly. "It's awesome. I'm feeling accomplished."

John Kemmerer was among the crowd of parents, friends and family members taking photos with their green-robed graduates following the ceremony. His twin daughters had both graduated from high school on Wednesday.

"(I'm) excited for them and interested in how they're going to live their lives," he told the Weekly.

Vargas had advice, and a challenge, for his fellow graduates as they move into adulthood: "As the Class of 2016 starts a new journey in their life today, remember that each and every one of us has an option to be afraid or the option to be courageous."

"Fear, or courage," he said, poignantly and pointedly. "Which one will you choose?"

Related article:

List of Palo Alto High School graduates

Gunn graduate's message: 'We are fighters'

Want to see more photos of graduation? Go to the Palo Alto Weekly's collection of social media posts on Storify


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5 people like this
a resident of College Terrace
on Jun 2, 2016 at 4:45 am

SEA_SEELAM REDDY is a registered user.


Well attended, beautiful campus, a lot of bright sunlight, overjoyed families and friends; the event was perfectly done.

Great to have a wonderful campus, teachers that care, staff and school board that is superb; a 10+ all the way.

Now, it is graduates turn to take on the challenges in our society and make it better for all of us.


Like this comment
Posted by HoSV
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Jun 4, 2016 at 12:58 pm

HoSV is a registered user.

Not a word was said for the Palo Alto classmates lost to suicide. Their lives weren't even worth a moment of silence.

Sorry, but further commenting on this topic has been closed.

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