Surrounded by family and faculty in the traditional, sun-dappled location between the Loomis Homestead and the Head of School’s House, the Loomis Chaffee Class of 2021 celebrated Commencement on Saturday, May 22, taking special delight in the familiar after a senior year of uncertainty.
“What a fantastic day, and what a wonderful moment for the graduates and the families of the Class of 2021,” declared Duncan A.L. MacLean ’90, chairman of the school’s Board of Trustees, as he opened the ceremony and acknowledged the shared joy of holding a Commencement ceremony on campus for the first time in two pandemic-troubled years.
What was perhaps most special about the event this year was its relative normalcy. Nearly all of the 205 members of the Class of 2021 were able to attend the ceremony in person though they missed the presence of about a dozen classmates who celebrated remotely from their homes around the world. Family members and guests — four per graduate — swelled the festive atmosphere with their proud cheers and broad smiles. All of the pomp seemed to carry extra meaning this year: the arrangement of the seniors on risers in Grubbs Quadrangle for the class photograph before the ceremony; the traditional procession down the Senior Path; the prelude from the Commencement Orchestra; the presentation of prizes in shiny gift boxes; the collective hush as speakers delivered words of wisdom, memory, and humor; and the handshake with Head of School Sheila Culbert as each class member received a diploma and strode across the stage to the cheers of classmates, parents, teachers, staff members, advisors, and coaches.
“You have each worked incredibly hard to be here at this moment through what has been a ridiculously difficult year,” Sheila told the class. “Well done!”
Commencement Speaker Pauline Chen ’82, a surgeon and writer, spoke of the year’s global hardships in her address to the class. Weaving her message around a Japanese folk tale that her father told her when she was a child, Pauline emphasized the importance of a shared narrative in overcoming societal crisis.
As a doctor, she witnessed the frightening toll that COVID-19 inflicted on patients, their families, and their caregivers. She described a fracturing of the medical profession as some worked heroically on the front lines and others fled to safer locales and as some spread speculative ideas about testing, prevention, and treatment as if they were proven and indisputable. “Few of these held up to subsequent scientific scrutiny, and almost all resulted in divisive public battles and patient harm,” she said.
What was missing, Pauline asserted, was a shared narrative among medical professionals facing a baffling and deadly infectious disease. Thankfully, she said, as medicine gained understanding of COVID-19, a shared story of the disease has emerged.
“But I am not so sure the rest of our country is on the same narrative footing,” she cautioned, citing climate change, vaccinations, election results, and racism as divisive issues with contradictory narratives.
Hope, she said, rested in the resilient young people who sat facing her. “It is each and every one of you who has the ability to bring shared narratives back to our world again,” she said, pointing to the class and noting the hardships, frustrations, and dangers they have faced and overcome in just the last year.
Shared experience was a theme of Class Speaker John Howley’s address as well. With humor, he recalled the Class of 2021’s muddy opening days adventures on the Ropes Course, which he described as “an obstacle course that looked like something from The Blair Witch Project.” Although the challenges and discomforts of the day in the woods left John dispirited at the time, he realized, looking back, that the most important things he and his classmates would learn at Loomis were all there on that day four years ago in the Ropes Course: balance, teamwork, and perseverance.
“If I could say anything to freshman-year-John as he leaves the Meadows, returning slightly disheartened from his first day of orientation,” he said, “I would tell him that, even though you may sometimes feel confused, anxious, and nervous for the future, your time here at Loomis Chaffee and the people you will encounter will challenge you, inspire you, and transform you.”
Commencement Prize Winners
The Loomis Family Prize: Clara Chen
The Charles Henry and Mary Chaffee Willcox Prize: Brett Donshik
The Ammidon Prize: Alejandro Rincón
The Florence E. Sellers Prize: Sophie Rodner
The Jennie Loomis Prize: Aidan Gillies
The Nathaniel Horton Batchelder Memorial Prize: Simone Moales
Sellers Faculty Prize Winners (awarded on Friday evening at Senior Night)