In Concord Academy’s 98th year, Commencement didn’t exactly resemble the annual ceremony we’re accustomed to. Although tents dotted the Chapel lawn and the podium was framed by blooming azaleas, as is typical, the chairs facing the podium looked different: Seated on each was a cardboard cutout of a member of the class of 2020. The Covid-19 pandemic may have kept the 98 honorees from physically attending the ceremony, but their presence was felt. The tents shaded a small number of CA staff, who were working feverishly to patch through live each one of the graduating seniors from their homes both across town and around the world.

Although it was technically complex, a mixture of prerecorded video and live remarks and student recognition for diplomas allowed CA to preserve many of the hallmarks that distinguish the school’s graduation ceremony — including recognizing seniors in random order, all with equal emphasis, and the accompanying suspense of presenting CA’s Commencement sock to the final diploma recipient. The senior song (“We’re All in This Together” from High School Musical, fortuitously chosen well before the coronavirus spread) was compiled by video, and seniors had each received a care package including, among other items, a pair of virtual reality goggles through which they could view a 360-degree video that, in a small way, could transport them to the Senior Steps, where they normally stand on this day. Each senior was present at Commencement via video feed, contributing to the occasion, many alongside their families and pets. This distinctive format made the ceremony personal, true to the spirit of the school and of this remarkable graduating class.

In recorded opening remarks, Fay Lampert Shutzer ’65, president of the Concord Academy Board of Trustees, recognized the unique place the class of 2020 will hold in history. “You have led through this difficult time by example,” she said. “And you will be remembered for your resilience, creativity, and warmth — the hallmarks of leadership you have displayed as you adapted to keep our beloved community strong.” Welcoming the graduates into the CA alumnae/i community, she dwelt on the very real transition they were making. As she said, “the meaning of this day is not virtual.”

Head of School Rick Hardy, speaking live from the podium, encouraged participation with applause from the audience of more than 860 tuning in from various counties and countries. Recognizing that this academic year will, as he said, “forever stand apart,” he commended the class of 2020 for defining “what it means to be tightly knit” and for their response to this unprecedented challenge, citing their autonomy, unity, courage, energy, joy, and constructive approach to change. “They did not allow their frustration or disappointment to define them,” Hardy said. “They got to work — they reimagined their senior spring and made it something quite remarkable and wonderful.”

By video, Student Head of School Vedika Sharma ’20 recognized the individual contributions of departing faculty and staff and those reaching major milestones of service to the school. Also by video, Haley Wixom ’20 and Charmaine Ko ’20, senior class officers, provided an appreciative and enthusiastic introduction of the day’s speaker, Ambassador Samantha Power, who served from 2013 to 2017 as the 28th U.S. permanent representative to the United Nations as well as a member of President Obama’s cabinet, and who is currently the Anna Lindh Professor of the Practice of Global Leadership and Public Policy at Harvard Kennedy School and the William D. Zabel Professor of Practice in Human Rights at Harvard Law School. (Each senior also received a copy of Power’s memoir The Education of an Idealist.)

After removing a green chameleon mask to speak live on the Chapel lawn, Power gave her address with compassion and humor, acknowledging the difficulties seniors faced as graduation neared, as well as their resilience. “Back in March, almost everything that you expected of your senior spring got taken away day by day,” she said. “You could have let those events, that surprise, that shock — you could have let all of that flatten you, but you did not. You found new ways to socialize, to learn, to grow. You even did something extraordinary: You maintained a spirit of gratitude toward your teachers and toward others in the community. Instead of cursing the darkness, you found — and in some cases, you made — new light.” The capacity to adapt, and the discipline of gratitude, she called their “superpowers.”

Power addressed the failures of leaders that had compounded the difficulty of these circumstances. “Their mistakes should frustrate you,” she said, “but I hope that their mistakes will also motivate you.” The world, Power told the graduating class, needs their compassion, and their grit. “We need you — even in these exceptional circumstances, which make us all feel small and quite powerless — to recognize the role that every one of us can play in changing the world for the better,” she said.

Though we are all daunted by the magnitude of the many crises we are facing — Power named widening inequality, the warming planet, debilitating political polarization, and acute racial injustice, as well as the pandemic — individuals, she said, can actually accomplish a lot by “shrinking the change.” It was an idea she credited to the book Switch: How to Change Things When Change is Hard by Chip and Dan Heath, which she described as setting one’s sights on a small slice of change that is within one’s power to make, leaving one’s mark, and then setting oneself on a path to do even more. The breadth of any of the crises we are confronting might cause us to give up before we even start trying to address them, Power explained, but “the truth is that transformational change, the kind we know we need,” she said, “most often comes about because individuals make lots of small changes, which add up.”

“Never forget the importance of individual dignity. Do all you can in your lives to protect it and promote it.”

– Ambassador Samantha Power

Drawing on what she learned in her various roles as a war correspondent, a human rights activist, a White House advisor, a diplomat, a professor, and, most importantly in her telling, a mother, Power offered a suggestion for how the class of 2020 might draw on the superpowers she named: the capacity to adapt and the discipline of gratitude. Her advice was simple, and profound: “Never forget the importance of individual dignity,” she said. “Do all you can in your lives to protect it and to promote it.”

Power praised CA’s “emphasis on valuing all students,” evidenced by recognizing all students rather than awarding prizes to a few or promoting GPA awareness as many schools do, as fuel for love of learning. This mindset also “enhances our ability to see full versions of the people around us,” she said. “This spirit of honoring everyone, of recognizing that each and every one of you contributes something unique to this community,” Power said, “this is something that you can carry forward in your future lives in a world that can be all too quick to judge, to rank, to categorize.”

We are all eager to end our isolation, Power noted, but more importantly, she said, “each of us has the power every day to see the people around us.” She hoped we would find a way to continue doing so once we resume our fast-paced lives.

Bookending Commencement were beautiful selections from CA student musicians. The ceremony opened with a Bach cello solo performed by Melanie Chen ’21 for the processional, and it closed with a Bach violin solo, performed by Adam Winograd ’21 for the recessional, as aerial footage showed CA’s Chapel and campus from above. The faculty and staff hug line was virtual this year: a video assemblage of heartfelt comments, some funny moments, and an infinitude of well wishes for the members of the class of 2020 as they emerged as Concord Academy graduates.

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