In the last week of May, the Ethical Culture Fieldston School hosted a cherished tradition: Commencement. After a year marked by new safety norms, hyflex schooling, and a total reimagining of the high school experience, the Class of 2021 returned to campus with their families — a marked change from last year’s Commencement, which due to health and safety guidelines could not host families on campus — to celebrate their graduation.
I’ll remember this Class of 2021 as a class that truly came together and formed a special, bonded, and unique community.
As the audience milled around finding their seats, the seniors waited to make their entrance. Livestream viewers ticked up to almost 500 as friends and family logged on. The first notes of “Pomp and Circumstance” picked up, and the doors to the field swung open. (Commencement usually takes place on the Quad, but this year was moved to an enormous tent on the field to allow for physical distancing and to provide relief from the hot sun and cover in case of rain.) Accompanied by their advisors, the students began their procession to thunderous applause.
The graduates took their seats next to their families, and Head of School Jessica Bagby kicked off the celebration with brief remarks. She began with a line from a Henry James essay titled “The Art of Fiction,” published just six years after the founding of ECFS. He wrote: “Try to be one of the people on whom nothing is lost.” The Class of 2021, Bagby said, “tried to live into the spirit encouraged in this line.” From making the most of a junior and senior year marked by “unprecedented circumstances” and loss, the students “exhibited remarkable and inspiring imagination and inventiveness as well as resilience and grit.” Bagby told the seniors:
You have become more self-reliant, even as you have figured out how to stay truly connected to those you care about deeply, despite the heartache of physical disconnection for too much of the time or far too long. You have also acted with conscience, compassion, and conviction in response to profound social injustices and serious communal needs. And still you have found joy and light in the darkness and kept your sense of humor, too. I daresay you have been people on whom nothing was lost.
Bagby introduced the keynote speaker, Lee Gelernt P’20, P’24, Deputy Director of the ACLU Immigrants’ Rights Project. Gelernt gave a striking address with a call to action: “Don’t worry about solving all the big problems — just get involved. Just help one person.” Form VI Dean Carl Anhalt called Gelernt’s remarks “a powerful and sobering reminder about our collective responsibility to keep working against violence and injustice while recognizing our individual abilities to make a difference where each of us can.”
The three student speakers took the stage next. As part of their speeches, Axis Familant ’21 offered a land acknowledgment for the Lenape land on which our campus stands; Thomas Grant ’21 embarked on a multimedia presentation based on a letter he wrote to his future self at the start of high school; and Ananda Vidal-Burgie ’21 challenged her classmates to start work on creating a more compassionate world.
As Vidal-Burgie concluded her remarks, Familant and Grant joined her onstage along with Fieldston Student Government Co-Presidents Calder Stokes '21 and Nina Kronengold '21 for a surprise tribute to Anhalt, who is moving on from ECFS at the end of the academic year. To applause, Vidal-Burgie said, “Anhalt, you always stood by us. While we, the Class of 2021, are graduating, Anhalt sort of is, too.” Grant handed Anhalt a bouquet of flowers, and the graduates awarded him a plaque that reads: “Mr. Anhalt, you make the world a better place. We love you. Fieldston Class of 2021.”
“I was shocked and speechless by the students’ gift for me, and I will remember their kindness forever, but I also wasn’t surprised,” says Anhalt. “It was one last act of selflessness and consideration for others that has always characterized the Class of 2021. I will miss them dearly.”
Projected on a screen above the stage, a video of the Senior Jazz Ensemble played. Filmed as individual segments that were then stitched together into one ensemble piece, the video showed students performing Eddie Harris’s “Cold Duck Time.” As each student played their solo, the audience applauded. Fitting multiple jazz performances together into something cohesive was a huge undertaking, and yet it worked; if you closed your eyes, you wouldn’t know the musicians hadn’t filmed in the same room.
In the last remarks of the day, Fieldston Upper Principal Nigel Furlonge rose to the podium. He began with an expression of gratitude for the many teams that did work that was “nothing short of extraordinary” to make the day — and, indeed, the entire year — possible. “It was an honor to work alongside these generous, dedicated, thoughtful employees,” he said.
Furlonge spoke about how he will remember this time, saying, “I will remember the Class of 2021 as resilient, even when it was hard to be so. I’ll remember that, as a group, you collectively centered the health, wellness, and safety of our community. You honored the many citizens who have given of themselves so selflessly as first responders and frontline workers. But, most of all, I’ll remember this Class of 2021 as a class that truly came together and formed a special, bonded, and unique community.”
After Furlonge’s remarks, Anhalt took to the stage to award diplomas. He read each of the seniors’ names as the students collected their diplomas from Furlonge. In a year of differences, there was at least one welcome moment of normalcy: Safely distanced from their classmates, each graduate took off their mask to pose for photos. The audience applauded, thrilled to see full-faced smiles. As the graduates redonned their masks and exited the stage, Anhalt offered them fist and elbow bumps, which they giddily returned. Diplomas in hand, the new graduates of the Class of 2021 threw their caps in the air, waving to those watching on the livestream.
“This year’s ceremony was uniquely special,” says Chief Philanthropy Officer Sarah Wendt, whose team, alongside colleagues at Fieldston Upper, planned and executed the event. “Prior to the event, the students’ families had the option to take graduation photos, and the Quad was abuzz with excited soon-to-be graduates and their parents who were happy to reconnect after a long 18 months of not seeing one another enough.”
It was an opportunity to come together as a community — an effort made by students, families, faculty, and staff throughout the academic year — for a tradition so deeply valued. Indeed, Wendt says, “It was a very special, moving, and celebratory day for all.”