Graduation 2021: Traditions Old and New

In an unprecedented year, it was an unprecedented graduation—not least because of the unseasonable weather. But lashing rain and temperatures in the 40s could not dampen or chill the spirits of the 96 members of the Class of 2021 or the family and friends who gathered on May 29 under the big tent on the Revers turf to cheer them on.
A late change in state guidelines allowed for an increase in the number of permitted attendees. The tent kept the crowd dry, for the most part. Perhaps best of all, the Massachusetts mask mandate was lifted on the date of graduation, so the happy smiles of the graduates could be seen by all.
 
In his opening remarks, Head of School Ned Parsons acknowledged the unique challenges of the 2020-2021 school year, as well as the graduating class’s admirable willingness to rise to the occasion. “I could hardly go forward in this ceremony without acknowledging the gift that the Class of 2021 bestowed upon this community in the form of your leadership through struggle, your tenacity in the face of hardships, your heart in times of need. The faculty, if they all could have been here to say so themselves, would tell you that it was the students who pulled us through this year, and it was you, our seniors, who led the way when we needed leadership,” said Parsons.
 
After brief welcoming remarks from Board of Trustees President (and Class of ’21 parent) Harley Lank, Parsons introduced the faculty speaker, Keith Zalaski. The math department member and athletics director, chosen by student vote, shared five important life lessons with the graduates but focused on one overarching message: “My ask of you on our first day together was to ‘be a good human.’ It’s the simplest rule I know, and by my calculation you’ve crushed it.”
 
Next, Assistant Head of School Jim Long introduced the student speaker, Maggie Leeming. Leeming’s remarks used the simple and oft-spoken phrase “We went to high school together” as a theme and through line as she looked back over her time at Rivers and contemplated the meaning of reaching this milestone. “Here we learned who we wanted to be, we learned who we couldn’t be, and who we are now; we learned the strength of our voices, a lesson I hope we don’t soon forget, and we learned the importance of time. For these four years, this is where our 96 lives have touched, and we stand on the moment when they begin to disentangle from each other,” said Leeming. “But when we get to wherever we are going, remember that even when the years fly by, and the people who used to look old start to look our age, remember that for a brief moment we went to high school together.” 
 
With those words, the key moment had arrived: The awarding of diplomas. Following custom, as Parsons read through the alphabetical list of graduates’ names, stretching from Amato to Zheng, he paused on each one, delivering a brief personal statement lauding the student’s accomplishments, contributions, and character. In aggregate, it painted a picture of a class whose every member had brought value to the school and strengthened the community. Though the fist-bumps that replaced handshakes served as a reminder of pandemic, this ritual proceeded much as in past years, bolstering a sense that the worst of COVID is well behind us.
 
In his closing remarks, Parsons shared a few reminders with the class. He urged them to express gratitude, in an authentic and meaningful way, to those who had supported their journeys; to use their education as “a call to action, not a mere credential”; to “sweep the sheds”—that is, to jump in when needed and be part of the solution to whatever challenges arise; to adopt a growth mindset in which the word “yet” figures heavily; and finally, to seek happiness, but to do so responsibly, intentionally, and mindfully. He expressed the hope that the newly minted alumni would return to campus often. And finally—demonstrating that this graduation, for all its novelty, also hewed to tradition—Parsons concluded, “Ladies and gentlemen, I present to you the Class of 2021!”
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