For a class that had prevailed through a senior year like no other, it was a triumphant Graduation like no other in the school's nearly 300-year history.
Just days after a Vespers service at sunset in Wynne-Darden Stadium, the Class of 2021 returned to the turf for Monday morning “Finals." The mood in the stadium was festive, as both parents and graduates felt a sense of jubilation at reaching the finish line of the pandemic year.
“Can we get a quick three-clap?" asked Blake Brown, one of the two valedictory speakers, a humorous reference that captured the mood and the place--it's a favorite saying of Varsity Football Coach Steve Monninger.
Applause was readily on tap throughout the ceremony, which opened with the graduates parading onto the track as “Pomp and Circumstance" played from the stadium speakers, and guests in the stands rose to their feet in anticipation.
The audience at the event was limited, as required by the governor's orders for graduation ceremonies; each senior could have two guests, who were grouped in socially-distanced, two-person pods in the stands. They surveyed the graduates, arrayed in rows of socially distanced chairs, stretching between the 40-yard lines. Everyone was allowed to be mask-free, thanks to the recent shift in health guidelines from the CDC and, as a result, the state of Virginia.
Due to the audience restriction, the school live-streamed the event on the website and YouTube. Viewers were tuning in: The combined audience encompassed more than 700 views from 34 states, Puerto Rico, and four countries--Germany, Argentina, Mexico, and Canada.
The 105 members of the Class of 2021 will venture widely this fall, traveling to 54 schools in 21 states, a diverse list that includes flagship universities in Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, and Wisconsin, private liberal art colleges and research universities, a military institution, Ivy League schools, and an aeronautical university.
Headmaster Dennis Manning opened the ceremony with a reference to the challenges that had been overcome to reach this moment. “Today we're gathered to recognize and honor them, as they mark a significant milestone in their lives and yours, parents, not just by navigating and prevailing through a historic pandemic but graduation from the eighth oldest school in the United States, Virginia's first school."
In her valedictory remarks, Ella Deans, who will attend Harvard University in the fall, spoke about the challenges that defined the Class of 2021 as “the most unstoppable senior class of all time."
“In our senior year alone, we have seen a battle against climate change, racial injustice, a pandemic, and political polarization so fiery that it alone could melt the polar ice caps, without all the excess carbon dioxide," she said. However, she noted that the Norfolk Academy experience is much more than the final year, and that the school has been “a second home" for her and her classmates.
She offered a specific catalogue of memorable moments with teachers and celebrations of the school's close-knit community, from 9th
Grade Leadership Lab, when “many of us poured out our hearts and souls to a group of our not-so-closest classmates in the middle of the woods," to the more traditional events like Spirit Week and the Homecoming pep rally.
The 9th Grade Leadership Lab made an appearance in Brown's valedictory as well, where it was part of a humorous list of hurdles to overcome on the road to graduation. Brown, who will attend Duke University, kept his audience chuckling with an exploration of two types of fun -- Fun A, things that are fun in the moment, “like eating quesadillas," -- and Fun B, things that are seem fun only after the fact, because they involve struggle.
“At the start of full-on quarantine just over a year ago, I never would have thought that, when I reflect on it now, my favorite moments would be hacking away at Jane Eyre for English class, burning four baguettes in the oven that demanded the entire day to be made from scratch, and completing those Chloe Ting workouts," he said. “Looking back, we all managed to have fun during something miserable."
It's the Fun B moments that NA has provided that bring out the best in students and build a community. “They bring us together as a class and allow us to bond on a level no one else can understand," he said. “And it's this type of fun that proves more meaningful. Fun A is easy. But doesn't it feel good to look back and realize you've had some fun B?"
Before she began awarding prizes, a signature part of the Finals ceremony, Associate Headmaster and Upper School Director Linda Gorsline thanked the Class of 2021 for the excitement, empathy, understanding, and love that they had shown during the year, chiefly through their eyes, as masks covered their faces. “Your eyes truly are the windows to your soul and heart," she noted. “And you seniors have a whole lot of heart and soul to take out into the world."
In his remarks to graduates, Headmaster Manning drew attention to the tremendous leadership demonstrated by the school trustees in this year, when reopening school took both scrupulous planning and a healthy dose of courage. He noted that the graduates should emulate such service and seek to contribute to organizations in similar ways in the future.
“I would ask all of us to look and fix it in our mind's eye, at the Class of 2021," he said. “In so doing, would you not agree with me that the future of this country is made brighter by them, that our hopes soar, our sense of optimism rises up, the prospects for nearly limitless human achievement, measurable and immeasurable success and happiness, a selfless love of our shared humanity, it has never been more confidently and clearly placed than in these extraordinary young people?"
It is a bit of a humorous tradition that the headmaster proclaims that each class is, in fact, the best class that Norfolk Academy has produced in its history. He did not deviate from it in this unusual year.
“Seniors, you leave here forever bound to each other, by the experiences not only of the last 15 months, for certain, but by the relationships forged over 6 or 12 years and inextricably tied to this historic and enduring institution," he said. “We love you and thank you for being you and for being the greatest class in the history of Norfolk Academy. Godspeed to the Class of 2021."
And with that ringing endorsement, the newly minted graduates processed off the football field and toward their future to the swinging rhythm of a throwback tune, “You Make My Dreams" by Hall & Oates.