Resisting a Return to ‘Normal,’ Seniors are Ready to Light the World Afire

A sense of déjà vu permeated the air in UNC-Chapel Hill’s Memorial Hall on May 27. There were the familiar notes of Our Loyal Devotion, Durham Academy’s alma mater, as faculty marched into the auditorium. That comforting aroma common to nearly century-old buildings. The sight of 100-plus mortarboards and excited, nervous smiles beneath them.

Some of those in the room might have once wondered when — if — they’d ever see such sounds, smells and sights again. Would “normal” return? It had been a long road since Durham Academy’s Class of 2019 graduated in Memorial Hall. In 2020, as the COVID-19 pandemic rocked their world, seniors received their diplomas one at a time in a two-day, socially distanced outdoor event. In 2021, an outdoor ceremony was interrupted by a fast-moving thunderstorm, forcing the ticket-limited crowd into Kenan Auditorium.

So, that sense of déjà vu at this year’s commencement ceremony wasn’t limited to the pre-COVID years. In pauses between speakers, one could hear the torrent of rain on the roof, bringing to mind the chaos of the year before. And with COVID cases again on the rise, face masks were common accessories around the auditorium.

At this moment in time — when the push and pull between resuming normalcy and embracing change is so present — student speaker Mukta Dharmapurikar ’22 questioned the logic of finding a “new normal.”

“Normal implies stagnation. Normal implies complacency,” she said. “On this campus, the senior class hasn’t created a new normal. We’ve created a new dynamic, a flurry of activity, adaptation and readiness for change.”

Dharmapurikar likened her classmates’ pursuit of change to secondary succession — an ecological term for the process by which life forms begin to thrive after a crisis, such as a fire, has wiped out most of the life that had inhabited the area.

“Organisms take advantage of nutrients buried in the ash to slowly reinhabit the area, with new species popping up and building a more diverse community,” she said. “Secondary succession is hitting rock bottom and starting over. It’s the perfect example of coming back stronger. It’s exactly what the Class of 2022 accomplished.

“COVID-19 was the fire that swept our school last year,” Dharmapurikar continued. “Like those ravaged forests, we had small traces of life here and there — hybrid classes, some online activities — but much of what defined our community was burned to the ground. This class had a difficult task: bringing life back to campus. And looking back a year later, we’ve done more than just complete that task. We haven’t just rebuilt our community, we’ve reformed it.”

Among the accomplishments of DA’s Class of 2022, she said, were a new sexual misconduct policy and dress code; the first-ever Art Gala; and vibrant observances of cultural holidays.

“We’ve realized that secondary succession isn’t just vital, it’s purposeful,” Dharmarpurikar said. “For decades, scientists have conducted prescribed burns — burning down forests on purpose so new life can emerge. Destruction is actually essential for healthy ecosystems. So, Class of 2022, here’s to starting fires and cultivating communities from the ashes. Here’s to having the audacity to question and reform. Here’s to finding freedom from the burden of normalcy.”

The 102 members of Durham Academy’s Class of 2022 are headed to 65 colleges and universities (see back cover) — from those close to home, like UNC and Duke, to those far-flung, like University of Tokyo and University of Southern California.

To classmate Haley Fogg ’22, seeing the many faces assembled for the commencement exercises was a symbol of the beauty of humanity.

“This ceremony is yet another testament to our desire for celebration and togetherness. We don’t have to be here, just as we didn’t have to dress up for spirit week and my soccer team didn’t have to show up to Moylan Field last week [for an optional, postseason practice],” she said. “But we’re here, and we’re celebrating. Always remember that we will choose to celebrate birthdays and graduations and wedding anniversaries and even funerals because we deserve to celebrate, because we want to celebrate and to be celebrated, and so we do.”

Delivering the keynote commencement address was Gabriel Bump, a critically acclaimed author and assistant professor in UNC’s department of English and Comparative Literature. Reflecting on his own experience at an independent school in Chicago, Bump urged the seniors to hold on not only to the knowledge that they gained from Durham Academy, but also to the friendships that they have developed.

After graduating from high school, Bump studied journalism at the University of Missouri with a goal of one day working for a major newspaper, but it wasn’t a good fit. He didn’t connect with his classes and found himself in a depressed and anxious state.

“No one down in Missouri knew me — the real me,” he said. So he left college after his sophomore year. “… My plan had failed. I didn’t know what to do. So how did I get from college dropout to here, in front of you, happy, fulfilled, grounded, with health insurance, a job that pays regularly? Well, that summer back home in Chicago, living with my parents, I spent every day with my lifelong friends. We bounced around the city, stayed up late, talked through our worries, fears, hopes, talked like people who had known each other for 15 years.”

His friends supported him in pursuing his passion for writing, eventually leading to the publishing of his debut novel, Everywhere You Don’t Belong, in 2020. Bump recalled sharing the good news about his book first with his parents in a brief phone call. And then he “dropped the news in the group chat, and the real celebration began.

“We still celebrate together, and we mourn together — breakups, divorces, firings, struggles with substance abuse, mass shootings, pandemics, deaths,” he continued. “We’re always there in the group chat.”

Upper School Director Lanis Wilson also encouraged the seniors to nurture the relationships that they have formed and to savor the moment.

“Appreciate where you are right now, surrounded by the people who care most about you — your friends, your teachers, your family,” Wilson said. “Class of 2022, you will never be in a room with so many people whose sole focus is your well-being. You’re surrounded by people who love you and care deeply for you. You’ve come a long way, and you still have a long way to go. But on this afternoon, on this stage, just be. Just appreciate what’s in front of you. Appreciate where you are, take in this moment and soak it in, because I think the secret to happiness comes in embracing beautiful moments.”