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In Gunn graduation speeches, students drop their 'excellent facades,' urge vulnerability

Class of 2019 speakers called on peers to embrace rather than fear failure and imperfection

The Gunn High School Class of 2019 toss their caps into the air after receiving their diplomas on May 30, 2019. Photo by Veronica Weber.

View this story with more photos here.

Instead of typical graduation platitudes about hard work and the bright prospects of life after high school, the Gunn High School Class of 2019's graduation speakers offered exercises in emotional vulnerability.

One, a self-described outgoing, popular student, said he struggles with depression and social anxiety.

The other admitted that behind the facade of her perfect transcript and most-driven student award was a feeling of emptiness.

Leading by example, they urged their peers at graduation on Thursday night to head into whatever's next after high school with vulnerability and self-acceptance.

"I, Jimmy Farley, face depression and social anxiety. I spent way too long trying to battle that all by myself," the graduating senior said. "I lived a life of closeted pain and self-destruction.

But people at Gunn, he said, "reminded me not being OK is OK."

Farley received support services through the school's wellness center. He shared his story on a student-run podcast, Project Oyster, and received almost 100 messages in the days afterward from peers who said they "had gone through similar times of insecurity and hardship and for the most part had never addressed it," he said.

He started his speech by asking people in the audience to raise their hand if they felt insecure about themselves in some way. Many seniors' hands shot up.

"The truth is, as much as I act like it's not true, I'm scared for how my time will be in college," Farley admitted to the crowd of graduates, teachers, friends and family members. "I'm fearful of not being successful and working hard just to fail. I'm terrified of meeting new people and leaving Gunn."

He urged his fellow graduates to embrace rather than fear failure and imperfection.

"Follow me in taking small steps to make peace with someone who can be our biggest enemy: ourselves," Farley said.

He also thanked Gunn for encouraging students "to be real, alive and honest."

Speaker Allie Chu described how the act of writing a genuinely vulnerable graduation speech posed a deep challenge for her. A longtime focus on excelling at school left her with an "excellent facade — a facade of, 'Yeah, mom, I've got this under control;' or, 'No, sorry, I can't hang out; I have to study.'"

"It's left me with a pristine transcript but feeling I'm standing apart, helplessly watching everyone live in the present in high school while I walk away looking back over my shoulder toward some golden but still nebulous future," Chu said.

She didn't face what was beneath the facade, she said, until she started writing her graduation speech. For months, she struggled to scale what she called her "vulnerability wall" in writing the speech. In the end, there was no picture-perfect moment of realization, she said, just hard, honest self-reflection.

"We have to risk being vulnerable by doing the things we suck at because those are the things worth doing," Chu said. "Those are the things that give you the euphoria of true triumph."

Guest speaker Peter Norvig, Google's director of research, issued the class of digital natives a different challenge: to consume technology more consciously and ethically.

"In our society today software companies, along with the consumers, have constructed an ecosystem that makes it easy to get what you want. The problem is, after spending a few hours clicking around you might end up saying, 'Oh man, why did I waste all that time?' You might realize it's not getting you any closer to what you really need — peace, love, equality, fairness, a healthy environment — and what's worse, every one of your clicks is not just wasting your own time, they're also serving as recommendations to all your peers," Norvig said.

It's up to young people, he said, to not only become the next generation of engineers and scientists, but "to make the right ethical choices, to build the system we want for our society," he said.

Thursday's ceremony also continued a tradition of recognizing two seniors with the Faculty Cup, an award that goes to students who exemplify the best traits of their class.

This year, the award went to Jennifer Arevalo and Meghna Singh. Arevalo was described as a "hardworking and balanced student who has made choices on campus who have allowed her to be happy healthy and successful." She was a Titan Ambassador for Gunn's freshman transition program and also a member of Sources of Strength, which trains students to become peer leaders on mental health. She also volunteers as a teacher's assistant at Juana Briones Elementary School and works at Walgreens and the Palo Alto YMCA.

"She is warm and genuine with a kind heart but perhaps the best example of her strength is her triumph over cancer — not once, not twice, but three times," said teacher Mike Camicia, who presented the award.

Singh was also active in mental health at Gunn. She was wellness commissioner for student government and also part of Sources of Strength and student-support group Reach Out Care Know, including two years as co-president of the latter group. She also advocated for teen wellness more broadly in Santa Clara County.

Camicia said others described Singh as "confident enough to share an opinion, mature enough to change it if necessary and generous enough to ask others to share theirs."

This year's Principal's Cup award for faculty members went to English teacher Diane Ichikawa, described as an energetic, captivating educator who brings literature to life.

After the ceremony, graduate Melanie Hyde commended Farley and Chu for opening up on a stage in front of hundreds of people.

"I give them so much credit," she said. "That's so brave."

Hyde is attending Drexel University in Pennsylvania in the fall to study film production, a passion she pursued at Gunn. She decorated her graduation cap with the text "that’s a wrap" and a clapperboard for a film titled "grad," directed by her and produced by Gunn.

Several years ago, Gunn banned graduating seniors from putting college names on their caps. Students have embraced the new tradition, using their caps for favorite quotes, pop culture references, cheeky sayings and creative embellishes. On Thursday, one senior's cap was decorated with mini cups of fake boba tea, while another's read "be brave, be humble."

Moments after officially graduating, Hyde smiled wide and said she was feeling excited about the next chapter.

"It's been a long ride but it's definitely all paid off," she said. "All the ups and downs were definitely worth it."

Related content:

• View the full list of Gunn High's Class of 2019 here.

The moments, songs and emojis that define the class of 2019: Seniors reflect on their high school careers

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Comments

6 people like this
Posted by mom of 2019 grad
a resident of Barron Park
on May 31, 2019 at 11:56 am

I loved Jimmy's speech and so happy that Jennifer Arevalo received an award. She is a special and sweet girl and I wish her and all the 2019 grads the best.


2 people like this
Posted by Victims Of Circumstance
a resident of Barron Park
on May 31, 2019 at 12:39 pm

> students drop their 'excellent facades,' urge vulnerability

This is OK in certain circles (i.e. among friends, family, significant others etc.) but not OK as a whole.

To broadcast one's vulnerability is a sign of weakness & will ensure that other less kind-hearted people will take advantage of & use those individuals who are professing their inherent weaknesses and/or ailments to others.

Leaders and aspiring leaders should never divulge their vulnerabilities to potential enemies.


3 people like this
Posted by Anon
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on May 31, 2019 at 12:48 pm

Posted by Victims Of Circumstance, a resident of Barron Park

>> This is OK in certain circles (i.e. among friends, family, significant others etc.) but not OK as a whole.

That is your opinion, but, the student speakers disagree with you.

>> To broadcast one's vulnerability is a sign of weakness & will ensure that other less kind-hearted people will take advantage of & use those individuals who are professing their inherent weaknesses and/or ailments to others.

>> Leaders and aspiring leaders should never divulge their vulnerabilities to potential enemies.

Being willing to admit your vulnerabilities and weaknesses in public could also be a sign of growing inner strength. Please be willing to consider the point of view expressed by the speakers.


2 people like this
Posted by Victims Of Circumstance
a resident of Barron Park
on May 31, 2019 at 1:09 pm

> Being willing to admit your vulnerabilities and weaknesses in public could also be a sign of growing inner strength.

^^^ Depends on the 'public' setting. All things considered, women as a rule do not respect a man who cries in public, perpetually whines or openly expresses his 'vulnerabilities'. And neither do most men.

Try blubbering in the military, at work or while leading the country & just see how far you get. A good way to empower your enemies.


2 people like this
Posted by Anon
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on May 31, 2019 at 1:33 pm

Posted by Victims Of Circumstance, a resident of Barron Park

>> Try blubbering in the military, at work or while leading the country & just see how far you get. A good way to empower your enemies.

I understand the "suffer in silence" view, but, I also understand the contrary view. Note this, from an older scientific study:

"Psychiatric disorders were found to be quite common. Some 41.2% of the adult population under 65 had experienced at least one DSM-III-R disorder in their lifetime, among them 23.3% within the preceding year."

Web Link

Anxiety disorders of various types are the most common. A recent study gave the statistic at 33.7% of people will experience an anxiety disorder in their lifetime.

Web Link

If 2 out of 5 of all people will suffer a serious disorder in their lifetime, and specifically, 1 out of 3 an anxiety disorder, I think serious consideration should be given to the notion that it is better to acknowledge these conditions rather than suppress discussion.


2 people like this
Posted by Victims Of Circumstance
a resident of Barron Park
on May 31, 2019 at 1:47 pm

> If 2 out of 5 of all people will suffer a serious disorder in their lifetime, and specifically, 1 out of 3 an anxiety disorder, I think serious consideration should be given to the notion that it is better to acknowledge these conditions rather than suppress discussion.

^^^I agree with you 100% BUT there is a time & a place for the appropriate expression of this anxiety.

Besides, MOST people don't want to constantly hear about other people's personal problems & issues as they've got enough of their own. It can get old after awhile.

This is why one must have an appropriate audience & setting...not anywhere or anyone will suffice.


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