The Greatest Graduation Ever

Photo by Bob Karp

Our daughter graduated from Durham Academy last month, and it was not what we imagined it would be. It was terrible, beautiful, profound and unifying.

Commencement was a microcosm of these last 15 COVID-contorted months. We had planned and practiced an elegant and orderly ceremony. We began under blue skies. Then the universe intervened — spattering rain and scattering our plans (and plastic rental chairs) to the wind. Within minutes, we moved 500 people (plus an electric piano, wooden podium, video cameras, 110 diplomas and the Durham Academy banner) into Kenan Auditorium. Speeches resumed. Diplomas were delivered. Grandmothers cried — in person and via livestream in cities across America. 

A senior parent emailed us soon after: “That was the greatest graduation ever. ‘THE Pivot’ in a year of pivots was hilarious beyond belief.” Said another, “Once the storm arrived, the tension was broken, everyone was rooting for you, and we were all in it together.”

We talk often about the volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous world that awaits our students. This year, that world did not wait. All of us were plunged into the muck of anxiety and improvisation. From wide-eyed kindergartners to weary-eyed administrators, we stretched like never before. Our teachers were heroic — responding with generosity and grace to all kinds of taxing surprises. They squinted at screens, breathed through masks and reinvented their roles as they worried about themselves, their families, our students and the future of our country. With professionalism, creativity and care, they did what we once thought was impossible: “doing school” during a pandemic, safely on campus from August to June.

Among the many lessons we learned this year:

We don’t have all the answers. Highly educated, highly organized, highly resourced societies rarely encounter riddles without solutions. COVID-19 may have been the first such insoluble conundrum in the lives of our students. It won’t be the last.

Adversity fosters antifragility. “Some things benefit from shocks,” writes essayist and statistician Nassim Nicholas Taleb. “They thrive and grow when exposed to volatility, randomness, disorder and stressors. In spite of the ubiquity of the phenomenon, there is no word for the exact opposite of fragile. Let us call it antifragile. Antifragility is beyond resilience. The resilient resists shocks and stays the same; the antifragile gets better.” This year, DA and its students got better. “High school for us wasn’t just about getting that A, going to prom and cheering on athletic teams,” Emily Norry ’21 said in her commencement address (see page 26). “We had the unique opportunity to kick-start the rest of our lives. We haven’t waited for college or beyond to start being the people we are; our exposure to intense events in high school has afforded us the space to grow as individuals and figure out what matters to us and what we want to stand for.”

Gratitude is a superpower. While it was often tempting to feel cheated or deprived this year, we recognized our extraordinary privilege and rediscovered the simplest of pleasures. We will never take health, family and hugs for granted again. We will treasure our campus, our concerts and our class discussions like never before. The summer of 2021 may be the sweetest in American history — in large part because it follows this terrible, beautiful, profound and unifying school year.

— Michael Ulku-Steiner
Head of School