At a high school known for its high scholarship, students in the 2023 Henry M. Gunn's graduating class focused instead on the lessons they learned during the COVID-19 pandemic and on efforts to be a community that is more inclusive and understanding of differences.
The student speakers at the June 1 graduation included one who led equity activities, one who had 183 absences this year, another who grew to ask questions rather than knowing all of the answers, and a fourth who learned to be comfortable with his perceived "gay voice."
There was no scholarly valedictorian, unlike in other schools, and no famous guest speaker. Instead, the students spoke with their own eloquence.
"You are all superheroes," Gunn Principal Wendy Stratton said from the dais, looking out over the sea of black-robed, soon-to-be graduates, as strong wind whipped banners and rattled speech notes.
"Your potential knows no bounds. You've faced significant challenges and used them as stepping stones," she said.
The Class of 2023, approximately 486 students strong, came together to foster an inclusive community out of the pandemic's isolation, which saw students attending classes remotely over Zoom from home.
Madison Yue, one of the speakers, said the pandemic changed her perspective and made her more aware of how inclusiveness and a strong community are necessary to thrive.
"Sophomore year was a time for growth. My dog and family members soon became my colleagues as I navigated online school. I can proudly say that I've mastered multitasking on a Zoom call while perfecting a poached egg to go with my breakfast," she said.
"As the pandemic subsided and we returned back to school junior year, I learned the importance of communities that helped me resume a once-normal routine," she said.
Dance has always been an outlet that allowed her to de-stress and connect with school spirit.
"When we came back together again in junior year, I remember with trepidation dancing at the fall sports rally on this very field. … What I saw was the Gunn community coming back together," she said.
Leading the student equity committee and participating in all-day equity training created a comfortable environment for Yue to tackle some tough questions.
"What was the first time you realized your race mattered? How does race affect your daily life? These are difficult questions that I'm still discovering answers to," she said.
She said she learned from group discussions that not everyone felt the community aspect of Gunn like she did.
"I saw these trainings evolve into conversations with others and taking baby steps to making our school a more inclusive campus," she said.
Even though it is just one person talking about their experience, it is a shared experience that many people can relate to, she said. Even with experiences that she couldn't relate to, she was able to empathize with people to the point where she began to look at her classmates with a greater sense of awareness, she said.
"There are many different groups for you to join. and I challenge you to join those other groups that you may not otherwise think about. Most of all, don't shy away or dodge the discomfort from learning about other communities. After all, when you are part of something larger, you will gain a multitude of perspectives on life and the world around you," she said.
No one's in the background
For Juni Kim, emerging from pandemic isolation was a time for reflection. She recalled a video of someone thrusting a camera into a teen's face and asking him how he thought others perceived him.
"I don't know, like a guy in the background," said the teen, who was enshrouded in a hoodie with his hands in his pockets, Kim recalled.
"I remember watching this and my immediate reaction was, 'How could you think of yourself as the guy in the background?' It was really profound to me, but I realized I wouldn't be so intrigued if it didn't ring at least a little bit true," she said.
The situation they were put into early in high school due to the pandemic and growing up in a digital era has led everyone to become "a little bit chronically online," she added.
Kim began to think about what she would do when she finally got to leave her room or her laptop. As she followed influencers and scoured the internet and idealized the type of person she wanted to become, she said she realized she was only a fraction of who she was supposed to be.
"Was I not also a guy in the background lurking in the shadows while I watched others light up rays and run marathons and write novels?" she asked herself.
She built her resume of things she thought she needed to do, to become her idealized person and to fulfill the accomplishments she dreamed of when she was at home, But a small comment by a trusted adult after choir rehearsal profoundly changed her perspective, she said.
"(They) pulled me aside and told me it was my expression that engaged and captivated an audience. And it may seem small or insignificant, but it really changed my worldview. I never had the best voice or was the smartest person in the room … But that recognition (was) something almost unconscious to me: something that I wasn't trying to control or manipulate to reach a certain benchmark to pass a certain round of auditions," she said.
"That moment of mentorship reoriented me to the reason I was in that room and doing this in the first place. The expression in my eyes and the glow in my face wasn't going to go on my resume. … Those moments at Gunn truly nurtured my authentic voice," she said.
Today if she was the one getting a camera shoved in her face, how would she think other people perceive her?
"Not as that girl in the background but as someone who's unafraid to say what's on her mind," she said. "Someone who's excited for right now. Because I've realized that how people perceive you isn't the goals you plan for the future marathons, the unwritten novels. It's the mood you're in when you go to bed at night. It's the face you show; your appearance when you say hi in the morning and the jokes that make everyone crack up in class.
"And I suppose this is where I'm supposed to say go chase your dreams. And I do think you should. But I think I have a more important message for you. Love right now. Cherish what you have right now. Let the people around you in on the intangible magic that comes out of them. … There's something like 500 of us graduates in the Gunn High School Class of 2023 and not a single one of us is a guy in the background," she said.
Speak up, make a difference
For Jack Poon, staying in the background didn't ever seem to be an option. Derided for the tone of his voice and its inflections during his middle school years, Poon stood out. Other boys' voices deepened, but his seemed to stay the same.
"They picked up on this difference. And it seemed that all of a sudden, the first thing people noticed about my voice wasn't the content of my words, but rather the tone I had, (which came with) assumptions about who I was and what I did, gradually eating away at my confidence until there was almost nothing left," he said.
In high school, he found a close group of friends and another student who also had a voice similar to his. That student, who also graduated on Thursday, was also teased in the same way, Poon said.
"They were being constantly bombarded with the same assumptions and speculation about their identity that I went through; enduring the same jokes that I had," he recalled. "But then they spoke up for themselves: 'I don't appreciate you guys making these jokes.' They said it didn't feel good. Simple words, and yet they communicated what I had always wanted to say to everyone," he said.
That moment was a turning point in his thinking, he said.
"That day taught me that my voice had the power to heal and to comfort someone, even if I hadn't healed completely myself yet," he said. "A single word can make a friend group a horror, or a compliment can make someone's day online. We have learned that a singular voice can inspire millions across the globe, or propagate mindless hatred that hurts countless others."
Poon said he is confident the graduates will stand up in the future in front of some audience because they all have something that only they can say.
"I want us to scream about the problems we face, the challenges we've withstood. … I want to resist the urge to stay silent because too often it is interpreted as compliance," he said. "I want us to speak even when it feels like nobody's listening so that even the chance of someone hearing can exist.
"And although I cannot see into the future, I know that as long as we use our voices as loudly as possible today, that will surely go into our tomorrow," he said.
Find reasons to show up
Evan Gold, who had 183 absences in his senior year, said it took a lot of attendance to get to graduation. Cumulatively, the graduating class put in an estimated 2.5 million days of attendance. He also focused on the times he was in class.
"One hundred eighty-three absences may seem like a big number, but a bigger number is 5,271. I showed up to class 5,271 times in my career at Gunn," he said.
"Even if we only came to class to see our friends and receive our state-issued corndog, our accomplishments were on the simple act of just showing up. By showing up today, every one of you has said this graduation is important. So if I can leave you with anything, it's this: Find the reasons to be there, whatever they might be."
At the ceremony, Madison Yue and Katherine Rueff were awarded the Faculty Cup awards, which go to the two most outstanding students. English teacher Terence Kitada received the Principal's Cup for the most honored teacher.
For more graduation coverage, go to Graduation central: Class of 2023 marks its milestone