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 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.”
Slideshow: Gunn High School’s Class of 2019
• View the full list of Gunn High’s Class of 2019 here.
TALK ABOUT IT
Congratulate this year’s Gunn High School Class of 2019 on Town Square, the online discussion forum at PaloAltoOnline.com.