As the 2020-2021 school year comes to its official end, we celebrate the indomitable Princeton Day School Class of 2021 with a brief look at their end-of-year celebrations on The Great Road, from the Lifer's Celebration (for all those who have attended PDS since PreK, K or Grade 1) to the Baccalaureate Celebration on June 10 and Commencement on June 11. Fittingly, all three of these events for seniors were held in the Princeton Day School Athletic Center field house, a space intentionally built to accommodate our entire community, and which was completed in August of 2020.
Head of School Paul J. Stellato opened the Lifers Dinner by commending the longest-tenured members of the Princeton Day School Class of 2021 and their families while emphasizing the important role they play in shaping the entire School.
Families that settle into a school and make it their home for more than a decade do so much to shape its trajectory. You have become the fabric of the place, you have become the place. You have made us who we are today. So with those who have come before and will follow us, thank you for all that you have done. I will always ‘remember you when.’
Acting Head of Upper School Chris Rhodes continued by reminding the Lifers of the deep relationships they have cultivated during their time at PDS, relationships that will endure long after they depart from campus: "Part of what this celebration is about is about cementing relationships. These people around you are all of the people 'who knew you when'. They will also be there for you when you are out in the world and encounter difficulties. Remember what you have built over the years and keep being there for each other."
Lifers Carl Coetzee '21, Bruno Cucchi '21 and Katie Jain '21 made the first toasts of the evening to the faculty members who guided them through their PDS experience. In a humorous yet poignant rhyming prose poem, Bruno and Katie went through each grade from their start to senior year, recalling favorite moments and thanking individual teachers who made a difference at each step on their journey. Carl thanked the faculty as a whole for their unwavering commitment to students:
I think that you would be hard-pressed to find another school where all of your teachers are so friendly and enthusiastically available to help you both inside and outside the classroom. It is very rare to have an environment like this one, in which, regardless of whatever is happening out there, your teachers are ready and eager to work with you to assure you grasp anything the material offers you.
Lifers Alex Hollander '21 and Sarah Sharma '21 followed with toasts to the Lifer parents. They thanked the parents for not only being a constant source of support through everything, but also how much the independence that parents granted to them was important to their collective growth. By putting the students in a position where they were forced to learn how to self-advocate with teachers and peers, the parents opened the door for the growth necessary to overcome life's obstacles, especially this year.
The toasts to the parents ended with the "Old Irish Blessing" the Lifers have recited from memory since their Lower School days: “May the road rise to meet you, may the wind be always at your back, may the sun shine warm upon your face, until we meet again.”
Beloved Artist-in-Residence and retiree Jerry Hirniak offered meaningful reflections to the Lifers, the last group of graduating Lifers has known from start to finish. His key words were "Stop... Watch", words he had first seen on a mobile as a student at the same point in life as the Class of 2021. He encouraged the lifers to carry these words with them as they go forward and put them to good use as they strive to understand and interact in the world. He also acknowledged the students as being at the center of the unique joy and reward of teaching: "The gift of being a teacher is here in this room. Each of you Lifers has made this work precious and special, the gift and ultimate reward of work we so passionately embrace. What is a community? When does a community become a family? As a small group, you have shared classes, tests, teachers, friends, parties, graduations, and all through, this, memories. Memories that will be with you for a lifetime."
LS teacher Emily Gallagher continued by lauding the Lifers managing their way through the challenges of the last year and asking them to embrace the Class of 2021's hallmark love for writing as a tool for observation, coping, and much more as they embark on the next part of their journey.
MS Humanities teacher Tarshia Griffin reminded the Lifers that, while PDS had something to do with their success over the years, their parents also poured themselves into the effort, and the students themselves led the way. “The truth is you always had success within you and it was always destined to come out. If nothing else, Princeton Day School helped you to see that in yourselves,” she noted.
To close the program, parents Darius and Tracy Young, Don Gasparro and Giri and Anupama Rao gave toasts to the Lifers. Darius talked about his and his wife Tracy’s unique role as PDS faculty/staff and parents of a Lifer. He recounted many fond memories – the Kindergarten holiday performance, Halloween parades, owning the stage at the 4th Grade Operetta, The Pushcart Wars, and again in 8th grade musical The Lion King, and all along, watching them all grow from tiny Lower Schoolers to strong Upper Schoolers. Tracy fondly remembered the Lifers’ exuberance and how it has not diminished a bit over the years.
Don Gasparro shared how the Lifers experienced, to paraphrase Dickens, “the best of times and the worst of times” as they prevailed through the COVID-19 pandemic. “It is these kinds of situations that bring a community from being a community to being a family, celebrating each other’s highs and supporting each other’s lows,” he stated.
Giri and Anupama Rao spoke about how, in some ways, so much has changed over the years and yet so much is the same. In their observation, the growth over the 14 years has been amazing and yet their character and values have remained remarkably consistent. They reminded the Lifers that they are a special group who can always be relied on to be your cheerleaders and to help one another when things are tough. “Lean on your friends as you embark on new adventures… they will root you in reality and help make sure you succeed,” they concluded.
The Baccalaureate dinner serves as a final gathering for the Class of 2021 to reflect on and celebrate their PDS careers while receiving words of wisdom about the future as they each depart from The Great Road.
Paul Stellato began the program by emphasizing the impact that the Class of 2021 has made on the School and how their legacy will endure at PDS. He stated, "The burden placed upon you these last few years was enormous and that you managed and mustered the courage to achieve what you have as a Class will be an important memory for the School."
Chris Rhodes followed with encouragement for the seniors to reflect on what they have accomplished and overcome this year and to carry those lessons into their next endeavors. He implored, "Remember what has gotten you through this experience, what challenges galvanized your thoughts and what relationships buoyed your spirits. These things will carry you forward."
Senior Class Dean Sam Hunt fought tears as he spoke with his trademark authenticity of his strong bonds with the Class forged over the years. "Seniors, I am proud of your resilience, spirit and courage. You are such a beautiful and magical group. Truly each of you has left your mark in my heart and I am grateful that I have been able to serve as your Dean these last three years," Mr. Hunt shared. As Chris Rhodes said afterward, "Sam is beloved by the students because he truly is love and light."
Senior Class President Holly Teti '21 noted this moment of change, all the changes everyone has experienced over the years, and the unknown changes to come, while reminding the Class that they will always have each other, no matter what lies ahead. "There's a winning spirit in all of us. PDS has shaped it and helped it grow but it will continue on long after we leave The Great Road. We have a lot left to learn and a lot of room to grow and that spirit will carry us forward," Holly said.
Happy to be together on such a beautiful graduation even, the seniors enjoyed eating Olive's sandwiches and Kona ice before rehearsing for Commencement in the field house. Afterwards, they continued to spend time enjoying the camaraderie outdoors on the Princeton Day School Athletic Center patio.
56th Princeton Day School Commencement
Head of School Paul J. Stellato opened the School's 56th Commencement ceremony with remarks to the Class of 2021 and their families. He expressed his gratitude for the perspective this Class has brought to such a fragmented and unpredictable year. "You have navigated the challenges of the last year with grace and wit and you are now completely and utterly triumphant. You have returned the School to us better than you found it," he stated.
The Class of 2021 elected Peter Sarsfield ’21 and Jamie Granato ’21 as this year's Commencement speakers. Peter shared fond memories with classmates and encouraged them to remember the tiny moments, no matter how random they seem, because they ultimately formed the whole PDS experience. Jamie recalled memories of stressful early times as an Upper School student and overcoming it by focusing on being in the moment and taking things one day or one week at a time. He shared this advice with his classmates, stating, "Some say that time flies when you're caught up in the moment. I say time flies by too quickly when you're caught up in the future. Life live one week at a time and, hopefully, life will slow down just enough for you to enjoy it."
Class President Holly Teti ’21 introduced the two faculty speakers who were chosen by the Senior Class: US Science Teacher Alana Allen, US English Teacher Jess Manners.
Ms. Allen reflected on her experience with the Class of 2021, noting that she believes she learned as much from this group of seniors as they likely learned from her. She encouraged students to step out of their comfort zones as they enter into college, no matter how frightening that thought may be. "You may be in a place that reminds you of PDS, but I implore you to step out and make friends with people who are not like you. These are the people who will challenge you to be better than you are right now and to continue the personal growth and evolution you have all experienced here at PDS," she remarked.
Ms. Manners lauded the Class of 2021 for what they have accomplished but urged them to continue to reach for the sky as they move forward. She presented a number of challenges to the students, stating, "Don't just stand by when you see something wrong, speak up and do something to change it. Don't just take the easy or even logical path. Take the one that excites and challenges you. Give your audience a text that is worth unpacking."
Vice Chair of the Board of Trustees Marc Brahaney P '11, '16 congratulated the Class of 2021 on behalf of the Board. Each senior then proceeded to have their name called and walk across the stage to receive and accept their diplomas with beaming smiles from all.
US History/Religion Teacher Dave Freedholm concluded the ceremony with a benediction, advising the Class of 2021 to reflect on the happy times and memories they have made together while also remembering the trials and tribulations they overcame in the process, and the bittersweet feelings that come with the end of one era before the beginning of another. "And now may the love that knows no bounds and no limits to its compassion, keep you and bless you on the road that lies ahead, today and always," he concluded.
And with that, the Princeton Day School Class of 2021 has officially graduated and moved into the ranks of Panther Alumni!