“The world as you know it has broken open,” keynote speaker Khary Lazarre-White ’91 told 2020’s graduating seniors. “It’s been a great revealing. My question today is: What will your role be?”
Lazarre-White looked out at the seniors sitting six feet apart in their blue caps and gowns. Indeed, the pandemic, the nation’s ongoing reckoning with systemic racism, and the consequences of climate change had converged to make a world that looked starkly different from when the Class of 2020 started their final year at ECFS. As of August 5, 2020 — the date of Graduation — the United States had recorded 4.7 million cases of COVID-19, 145 days had elapsed without charges against Breonna Taylor’s murderers, and Hurricane Isaias had ravaged the Caribbean and East Coast.
The graduating seniors were ready to meet the moment. They elected both student speakers and a faculty member who spoke to their collective roles in this changing world and encouraged the graduates to use their ethical lens in all aspects of their lives.
In the midst of a period that has been marked by seriousness and introspection, Graduation offered countless moments of joy. It was, in many ways, a typical ECFS experience: understanding, meeting, and celebrating the responsibility we have to each other.
When the pandemic closed ECFS campuses in March, faculty and staff went into overdrive to maintain a sense of community, even as everyone checked in from home. Graduation was non-negotiable: As Head of School Jessica Bagby told the seniors when our campuses closed in March, “I can promise you that the Class of 2020 will be celebrated and your accomplishments will be honored as your high school careers come to an end. Of this you can be certain.” Representatives from the Class of 2020, who were included in the planning process from the start, pushed for an on-campus ceremony, albeit one with ample safety precautions.
The Advancement Office and the Upper School administrative team — who jointly oversee the planning of Graduation — got to work. An August date was selected; in addition, to acknowledge the original Commencement day of June 11, seniors received a gift box with their diploma, cap, tassel, and a letter from Bagby and Fieldston Upper Principal Nigel Furlonge.
Sarah Wendt, Chief Philanthropy Officer, says the team hit one roadblock after another in the course of planning, but they were resolute in their goal of giving seniors an in-person ceremony. First, there was the matter of physical distancing, which meant setting up chairs six feet apart and — based on state guidelines — making the difficult decision not to allow families and faculty on campus. (Instead, the ceremony was live-streamed, and hundreds of faculty and family members tuned in.) When rain threatened the event, the Advancement team ordered tents. When hurricane winds blew too strongly for the tents, they went back to the drawing board.
“True to ECFS’s enduring strength, neither plague nor storm could derail the day,” says Nancy Oti, Director of Special Events, who worked tirelessly to plan the event. On August 5, the seniors gathered on the beloved Quad for a strikingly beautiful day.
Per tradition, the graduates elected three student speakers to represent them at the ceremony. Each spoke to the unique moment and their individual and collective roles — and threw in some clever one-liners to boot. (As Lucas S. ’20 said, “Our hopes of a couple pandemic days turned into endless pandemic weeks and pandemic months. All we wanted was to be back in the classroom — believe it or not.”) Between a Kanye West and Drake reference, Lucas added, “If we, the Fieldston Class of 2020, aren’t going to make the world a better place, then who will?”
Matthew B. ’20 spoke to the experience of this year’s graduates — one markedly different than expected. “I’m proud to be a part of the Class of 2020 because though we didn’t get to slack off all quarter as we feel we deserved, we learned something far more important. To expect the unexpected, and to anticipate change, whether positive or negative,” he said. “We are strong, and we are stronger as a unit. I have great faith in the Class of 2020.”
Jahnavi K. ’20 outlined concrete steps for her classmates as they left ECFS. “We can use the knowledge we’ve absorbed all these years — the statistics, history, and stories — to reflect, learn, unlearn, and share with others. We can employ the communication skills we’ve honed from countless presentations, meetings, sports teams, and ensembles. We can tap into the empathy we’ve developed by interacting with and reading books about so many different people and engaging in community service, wielding it as a powerful instrument for growth and, ultimately, change,” she said.
I do not speak to you as leaders of tomorrow. It’s your time now — today.
The graduates also chose a faculty speaker, Dr. Alwin Jones, Fieldston Upper English Teacher and incoming English Department Chair. Jones delivered remarks by video in his trademark electrifying style, even invoking a stuffed unicorn as a prop. With help from Kendrick Lamar, Langston Hughes, Ethics and Performing Arts Teacher Dhari Noel, Audre Lorde, Stevie Wonder, and Saul Williams, Jones spoke to the ways in which the graduates stood up and showed up through protest, engagement, and leadership in this moment when “both pandemics have come for our breaths at the same time.” He implored his audience to ask themselves: “How and when and why will I continue to show up? How will I use the examples, the training, the practice, the ethics, my experiences, my mistakes, to speak up for people who need us to lend to them the privilege of our voices and resources — to lock arms with the beautiful unicorns who are sometimes too beautiful for the limited imagination of the present but still courageous enough to imagine a more colorful world, the black unicorns who have put their bodies on the line to found the Black Lives Matter; continue to be a part of what the late John Lewis called the good trouble chorus for those who continue to teach you and the children of tomorrow, born and unborn, how to draw and play with unicorns in a more colorful world?”
Lazarre-White — a social entrepreneur, novelist, educator, activist, attorney, and co-founder of nationally-renowned non-profit The Brotherhood/Sister Sol (Bro/Sis) — gave an address that did more than inspire: It invited and compelled the graduates to engage and struggle with the issues facing their world, and it conveyed the urgent need for their participation. “I do not speak to you as leaders of tomorrow,” he said. “It’s your time now — today. Young people have been at the forefront of every movement for social change in this country, whether you talk of the Women’s Movement, or the Black Power Movement, or the Civil Rights Movement, the Anti-Vietnam War Movement, the LGBTQ Movement for equality — there’s always been young people at the forefront. We need your passion now. We need your conviction now. We need your action now.”
"In so many ways, Graduation is truly about a new beginning,” says Yasmine Fillmore ’99, Director of Alumni Relations. “It's an official welcome into the alumni family. I couldn't imagine this rite of passage without my best Fieldston friends by my side, and I'm thrilled we were able to offer a similar sense of togetherness for the Class of 2020.” After Graduation, each graduate received a Welcome to Fieldston Alumni gift package, including a silver Class of 2020 frame, a Fieldston pennant, and a thumb drive with a video montage of welcome messages from alumni.
Seniors may not have been able to toss their hats to the sky in our COVID-19 world, but they had the rare experience of being with their community again as they moved into their new roles as Fieldston alumni.
The graduates waved at each other, mimed hugs from a distance, and grinned so wide that one could tell — even through their masks — that they were cracking smiles. They whooped and cheered during speeches and when their classmates received their diplomas. They came home to ECFS — to their community — and joined the ranks of Fieldston Eagles, an alumni group spanning the globe.
As Matthew put it in his remarks, “It’s those small moments of togetherness that to me define the Fieldston experience.” Amid a period of strife and uncertainty, the Class of 2020 came together to celebrate each other, to prioritize their community, and to find joy.