On a sunny morning in May, the Ethical Culture Fieldston School celebrated Commencement for the Class of 2023, honoring the students’ achievements and memories before they take flight and move on to their next chapter.
Families and friends gathered in the Fieldston Quad eagerly, awaiting a glimpse of the graduates as the Class of 2023 entered alongside their advisories for the last time. Once the seniors were seated, Head of School Joe Algrant welcomed everyone, noting that the Fieldston halls have absorbed the graduates’ energy and will reflect it forever. Algrant reminded students that their unique educational experience has prepared them invaluably for what will come.
“You join a select group of alums who are better positioned for this world than most because of your experiences here,” he said, introducing a common message alumni share about their time as students. “What I hear over and over is that this School has prepared them to be thoughtful, caring, daring contributors, that this education has guided them to challenge and be challenged in the pursuit of goodness and right. So I hope it has for you, because we need folks like you now more than ever as you go out into a world that needs these perspectives that your ethical lens brings to any situation.”
Algrant also touched upon the special connections alumni still have with their Fieldston peers, which became an undeniable theme of the day’s festivities. Next, Kimberly Smith Spacek ’91, Chair of the Board of Trustees, shared how her former advisor, History and English Teacher Bob Montera, described the Class of 2023: “Love and friendship. Intellectually sophisticated. But most importantly, you take care of one another, and you take care of the world.”
“You may leave the campus today, go off to college, travel the world, embark on your future career,” Smith Spacek said, “but I can assure you whether you were here for 14 years, four years, or less, you will always be a Fieldston graduate. You will always be welcomed here with open arms.”
Following the Advanced Vocal Tech group’s rendition of “That Lonesome Road,” the first of three student speakers, Ike Chukwulozie ’23, addressed the audience. To summarize his feelings from the past week, he first quoted Dr. Seuss. “‘How did it get so late so soon? It’s night before it’s afternoon. December is here before it’s June. My goodness, how the time has flown. How did it get so late so soon?’”
“I am glad that I now appreciate how fleeting life is,” Chukwulozie said. “Equipped with this knowledge, I am working to institute small changes that I hope will help me live my best life. I try to spend less time mindlessly scrolling on my phone, make more time to see friends and family, and generally put value on doing the things I enjoy with people I like. Even when I’m having a bad day, I make an effort to find the good in it and turn it around instead of wishing away some of the finite time I have left.”
Chukwulozie shared his wish that he had cherished his 14-year tenure at ECFS more, recounting memories of storming the basketball court after winning a big game and reuniting with his friends on the first day of school. Like previous speakers, he emphasized the impact of the people surrounding the graduating class.
“If you don’t like something in your life, change it,” he said. “If you stumble upon a rare opportunity, take it. If you find people that you like, hold on to them. Whether that means taking risks and saying yes more often, spending more time with friends and family, or dedicating yourself more seriously to your passions, live a deliberate life. Even when life isn’t great, try to learn something from it. Most importantly, cherish the people around you, because they are impermanent, and because they are the ones who imbue our lives with meaning.”
Speaker Marisa Hirschfield ’23 echoed the seniors’ palpable love for each other, saying they root for each other’s successes. She also defined uncomplicated joy as “moments where you can just briefly bask in happiness untainted by troubles of any kind.” “I realize just how often I’ve felt uncomplicated joy at Fieldston,” she said. “The companionship here allows for so much joy. And that’s not to say we get along all the time, but I feel like we’re a grade that can always come back together and unify around something.”
Along with that recognition of joy at Fieldston came the lesson that life also inevitably brings tragedy, but how one handles it is key. “The world is rife with suffering, and we have to contend with it to survive but also never settle for it,” said Hirschfield. “And in that way, I feel that Fieldston is microcosmic.”
In the final student speech, Declan Semler ’23 explored the School’s role in encouraging students to shape their future identities. “What a privilege it is to go to a school where the question is not what are you going to do, but rather, who you want to be,” he said. “Fieldston kids think a lot about who we want to be. We want to be change makers. We want to fight for what’s right – for goodness in the world. We want to be kind. We want to inspire. We want to create. We want to be just. These are not ends; they are means. I am so grateful that we’ve had the luxury of this kind of thinking.”
Commencement speaker Dr. Mariko Silver, who attended the School from 5th to 10th Grade before her family moved away to Los Angeles, reflected on the metaphorical and literal distance her Fieldston roots have driven her. Now the President and CEO of the Henry Luce Foundation, Dr. Silver spoke about her longtime friends who greeted her as strangers on her first day at the School. It wasn’t until Dr. Silver became an adult that she realized that the friends she made at ECFS are still, as she explained, “the first people I call.”
“Riding along this path with my lifelong Fieldston friends, I learned that a Fieldston education can take you anywhere and everywhere,” she said. “I learned that not just from my experience leading colleges and universities, building partnerships around the world, and serving in the first Obama administration. I learned that from seeing how my friends chose to navigate this world. Some of them drove in straight lines, but most of them took a winding path. Don’t worry — those winding paths were enormously productive, even if they didn’t always look like it from the bleachers. And parents, make no mistake, you are in the bleachers now.”
Dr. Silver also shared a drawing from her 5th Grade class at Ethical Culture illustrating what she valued. In addition to justice and equal rights, her younger self had included boys, fashion, and her cat, but she recalled that other students didn’t ridicule each other for less serious choices. “I want to thank Ethical Culture and Fieldston for making this important space for young people, where they can learn together about how to hold those things co-equally, because they’re what make us human,” she summarized. “We all contain multitudes.”
The Senior Jazz Ensemble then performed Herbie Hancock’s “Chameleon” before Fieldston Upper Principal Dr. Stacey Bobo delivered farewell remarks. She highlighted the COVID-19 pandemic’s early disruption of the Class of 2023’s high school experience in 9th Grade. Even when living through unprecedented times, the class persevered. “You are a bright, sensitive, supportive, diverse group of individuals who have shown how to lead honorable and compassionate lives in the face of seemingly incomparable obstacles,” she shared.
Class of 2023 Dean and Math Teacher John Reyes joined Dr. Bobo on stage to award the seniors their diplomas. Advisors led the graduates toward the stage, offering each student a hug and a smile before they collected their diplomas. In a particularly poignant touch, faculty members with children in the senior class approached the podium to hand them their diplomas. Soon, every student held that coveted piece of paper, and it was time for them to move their tassels to the left and officially become ECFS alumni. There was no better way to celebrate than with a joyous cap toss.
Senior vocalists then accompanied the Fieldston Orchestra in their final performance of the School song, “Iam Canamus,” before filing out of the Quad to the cheers of their loved ones. With the sun shining and the community beaming, the parting words of Dr. Silver weren’t far from everyone’s minds:
“We celebrate on this beautiful day, in this beautiful Quad, with our beautiful friends, but we know: things are not all right. We have work to do. You have work to do. And I trust you. Trust yourselves, trust each other.”
Congratulations, Class of 2023!