Under a clear sky, with the rays of the setting sun casting a glow on faces unmasked at a large school gathering for the first time in the school year, seniors and their parents gathered for Vespers at Wynne-Darden Stadium.
Norfolk Academy's traditional prelude to Graduation moved from Johnson Theater to a new outdoor location this year, reflecting the exigencies of Covid-19, which has reshaped so much of the Class of 2021's final year at the school.
It has been a long year of hardship for everyone, across the nation, in Tidewater, and for the oldest students at Norfolk Academy, who experienced a truly abnormal senior year, as one speaker noted, one that demanded resilience from everyone.
The mood of the those assembled for Vespers--defined as an evening prayer service--was a combination of amazement and gratitude, as larger gatherings have only recently been permitted in Virginia; in fact, throughout much of the year, parents have been unable to come to campus. “I am in a state of mere disbelief when I consider the unusual and insurmountable challenges we have faced," said Headmaster Dennis Manning, as he surveyed the seniors and parents, sitting in socially distanced pods on the football field. “It is a testament to the power of the place, its people, and its transcendent purpose."
It is a Vespers tradition to tap a member of the Norfolk Academy community as the keynote speaker, and to keep the choice a surprise. That tradition was followed: Maurice A. Jones has served in several federal and state offices, including Virginia Commerce Secretary, and is the current CEO of OneTen, a coalition that is working to create 1 million family-sustaining jobs for African Americans by the end of the 2020s. He is also a former Norfolk Academy trustee and the parent of Michela, a member of the Class of 2021, who will be heading to Haverford College in the fall.
He took the theme for his remarks from a phrase he encountered when he was a young man, traveling to England for the first time on a Rhodes Scholarship to study at Oxford University. Riding on the subway -- The Tube, as Londoners call it -- he was enchanted by the British accent and mellifluous tones of a recorded female voice, instructing riders to “mind the gap" between the train and the platform, and by paying attention, avoid the danger of falling in.
“This country has gaps that are the biggest risk to us becoming a more perfect union that need to be minded," Jones noted. “The gaps were there at the beginning."
Jones drew a line from the nation's earliest moments--the arrival of the first ship carrying slaves in Hampton as the House of Burgesses met in Jamestown--to the current disparities between Black and white Americans. He touched on rates of home ownership, 70% for whites and 40% for Blacks, and stark differences in life expectancy right in the Tidewater region, again related to race.
“We need talent to step into these gaps and challenge the way the country is working," Jones told the seniors. “We need talent that will challenge the system." Yet, he noted, “systemic change is necessary but not sufficient."
In order to accomplish all that needs to be done, we must become a more caring nation, and the Class of 2021 should lead the way, he said. “The big work of the country is the work of the heart. We need transformation of the heart."
Two leaders in the senior class also offered reflections about their journey at Norfolk Academy, both focusing not only on what they had learned from relationships with teachers and friends, but also on the need to rely on those connections to get through the final year and look ahead with optimism.
Madeleine Brooks, chair of the Honor Council, who is soon to be a “First Year" at University of Virginia, noted the mantra about running long distances she had gleaned from Coach Ken Lampert, who passed away in 2020. In telling her to plan her races, he would say, “ABC before XYZ."
“I also want to apply this idea to our class--we shouldn't rush so quickly to forget all of our teachers, our teammates, our friends, or our coaches, moving onto the next chapter without appreciating the one we're in," she said. “The people with whom you have built relationships truly matter and will leave a phenomenal impression on your character."
Frank Mercer IV, president of the Tunstall Student Council, drew frequent laughs from his classmates as he noted the progress they had made in a year that started with so many “no's" due to Covid restrictions--no senior donuts, no senior lounge, and no athletic competitions--and ended with much reinstated, from “glazed, raspberry, and cream donuts," to conference championships, and an exultant countdown of the year's final moments in the reopened senior lounge.
More seriously, Mercer--who will be heading to Duke University as a Robertson Scholar--observed that the class defined itself as “adaptable and transformative pioneers" in figuring out how to bond through times that challenged everyone. “I am willing to argue that we as a class have gone further than any class before us," he said.
Matthew Wetmore, the senior class president who will be attending Williams College, presented the Class Gift: It is a donation to create an interactive exhibit for a new Engineering, Design, and Innovation space that will soon be under construction. “It is incredibly exciting to contribute to a new initiative," he said.
Mr. Manning continued a Vespers tradition of writing a tribute to the entire senior class that features puns on their names. And in another tradition, several seniors provided musical interludes. Sabrina Sterns (Illinois State University) sang “Best Day" by Taylor Swift; Alexandra Kerr and Christopher Asuncion, both of whom who will be attending UVA, sang “Who I Am Right Now," an original composition by Kerr; and Virginia Ames Tillar (Virginia Tech) closed Vespers with “The Prayer," a piece in English and Italian made popular by Josh Groban, featuring lines that had extra resonance at the end of this pandemic year:
“Let this be our prayer
As we go our way
Lead us to a place
Guide us with your Grace
To a place where we'll be safe."