“Wow. We lived through enough history to fill two textbooks,” Emily Norry ’21 told her classmates as they prepared to join the ranks of Durham Academy alumni.
In most any other year, a statement like that at a high school graduation ceremony would be hyperbole. But for members of the Class of 2021 — who have witnessed enough history-altering movements and events in just their four years at the Upper School to fill a lifetime — it’s a fact.
As Norry recounted from the stage of Kenan Auditorium on May 28 for Durham Academy’s 47th commencement exercises, the 110 members of the Class of 2021 began their high school career in the midst of the #MeToo movement and a renewed, youth-led call for gun control legislation in the wake of the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School mass shooting.
Sophomore year, the world joined in teenage activist Greta Thunberg’s calls to combat climate change. The summer after junior year, Norry said, “many Americans finally began to take notice” of the violence unjustly inflicted on Black Americans and took to the streets to join the #BlackLivesMatter protests. For some students, senior year brought the opportunity to vote in a historic election, followed by the insurrection at the Capitol.
And that’s not to mention the COVID-19 pandemic. (“I’m going to ignore that elephant in the room,” Norry said with a smile.)
“In reminding you all of the events that shaped the past four years, I’ve neglected to include an important part: how the Class of 2021 used these issues as motivation to push for change, to find creative and innovative solutions to widespread problems,” she said in the student address. “... we dedicated a lot of time and energy to the world outside of DA. For the first time, seemingly seismic societal upheavals featured people our own age taking the national and international stage to push for change.”
In keeping with a school year that has demanded adaptability, a fast-moving storm forced the commencement ceremony — which began on the K Family Outdoor Commons — to shift indoors midway through. With smiles evident behind their masks, seniors grabbed their chairs and brought them to the stage of Kenan Auditorium as family members and faculty calmly filed in.
Prior to the interruption, Upper School Director Lanis Wilson opened the ceremony by urging the seniors to not leave behind “the life of the mind.”
“You will focus your studies and leave behind those subjects that are least attractive to your imagination or that pose such a challenge that you long to abandon them for matters more suited to your natural abilities,” he said. “But before you forsake some of these hard-earned lessons, I would encourage you to reconsider the polymath within. Not be so quick to leave the study of language behind. Do not abandon math, even dare I say calculus, and please, please, please do not stop reading literature.”
Such a lifelong love of learning calls to mind Durham Academy’s mission: “to prepare each student to live a moral, happy and productive life.” Commencement speaker Becki Feinglos Planchard ’07 — senior early childhood policy advisor with the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services (NCDHHS) — emphasized the importance of finding balance within these three attributes and not allowing productivity to overshadow happiness.
“It was while going to school here at DA that I defined what it meant to be Becki Feinglos, what it meant to be me,” Planchard said. “Becki was an achiever. Becki always looked like she was put together. Becki was beautiful. Becki was kind to everyone. Becki was a performer. Becki was persistent. You could count on Becki to get the job done. Becki would always give 100%. ‘Sleep is for the weak!’ became a mantra for me.”
The imbalance toward productivity — which led to sometimes-debilitating symptoms of anxiety and Obsessive Compulsive Disorder — continued through her time as an undergraduate at Duke University, as a Teach for America corps member, as a graduate student at the University of Chicago and as a Chicago mayor’s office staffer. A couple of years into her tenure with NCDHHS, everything changed.
“ ‘Productive Becki’ got asked on Saturday morning to come into the state’s Emergency Operations Center in Raleigh to game plan how we would close schools across the state in response to the burgeoning coronavirus,” Planchard recalled of March 14, 2020.
As she was leading a meeting that day, she received the devastating news of her father’s unexpected death.
“This was the beginning of the end of the Becki I had been building up for decades,” Planchard said.
After a month off work, she quickly fell back into her old habits, working around the clock and “flying by the seat of my pants” as she coordinated public health requirements for schools to operate in the pandemic. In November, the constant stress led to her being diagnosed with shingles at the age of 31. Forced to take another month off work, she spent the time sleeping and in therapy.
“And I started to realize that living a productive life, only, isn’t sustainable for me,” Planchard said. “I can’t ignore my own wellness in order to achieve outcomes, in order to produce.”
Acknowledging that she is still learning to find balance, she encouraged the seniors to not assess their worth by productivity alone.
Referencing DA’s mission to equip students for “moral, happy, productive lives,” Planchard said, “I feel like I somehow missed the message about the ‘happy’ part when I was sitting in your seats. But I hear it now. And I’m working on it. I hope you hear it today and remember it tomorrow.
“As you go off to whatever and wherever is next for you, I want you to remember this: you matter, you are worthy, you have value, you deserve rest and you deserve to love yourself, no matter what,” she continued. “… I congratulate each and every one of you for all you’ve achieved and all that you have produced. But much more importantly, I congratulate you for striving to be authentically, happily, you.”