Poly Celebrates Its 163rd Commencement

The day the Class of 2020 had been looking forward to arrived on June 12 at 11 AM when Poly Prep’s 163rd Commencement ceremony became the school’s first virtual Commencement.

Commencement began with the traditional playing of Elgar’s “Pomp and Circumstance” as the images of the 125 graduates scrolled by in a Zoom video presentation, accompanied by a stream of “Congratulations Class of 2020” from attendees in the chat. Next, Zaya Rothenberg ’20 sang a beautiful rendition of “America the Beautiful.”

Class of 2020 Commencement Congratulations
Commencement Address by Head of School

Standing in front of the main building on the Dyker Heights campus, Head of School Audrius Barzdukas P’20, whose son was among the graduates, welcomed parents, grandparents, friends, and guests. “Most especially,” he said, “welcome, students. For more than a century and a half, our school has gathered to celebrate students and their achievements, to congratulate them, to present their diplomas in recognition of those achievements, and to encourage our graduates to go forth and do well by doing good.”

“Today, Class of 2020, you join their illustrious ranks.”

“And, today for the first time ever, we gather in a different way. We gather through the miracle of technology. We gather via the emotional and spiritual bonds built through our fellowship, shared journey, and sense of community.”

Community matters. And, today, as much as ever, we all need community.

“Gathering matters. Community matters. And, today, as much as ever, we all need community. Today, as much as ever, we need to be and work together to fight injustice, to ensure that systemic racism, inequality, inequity, and violence against people of color are removed from the fabric of our nation. We need to work together to ensure that everyone is free to live a healthy life and pursue happiness.”

“Your education empowers you to live such a life. You’ve earned your diploma by completing a rigorous course of study and demonstrating good character. But never forget, never forget, that you were empowered by others—your teachers, your coaches, your mentors, your deans, and most especially your parents and family—who supported and encouraged you on your journey through Poly. They all deserve your thanks. And I would like to ask you to, right now, turn to them and say, ‘Thank you.’”

“You are a special class, Class of 2020. You are the class that forever will have graduated during the pandemic, forever the class that crossed over the bridge of ‘everything changed.’”

“By everything, Class of 2020, I mean everything. Life as we know it is different, and does anyone imagine it will not be different going forward?”

“One way it will be different is that we can no longer pretend that we all aren’t in it together. Black Lives Matter and the virus have taught us that the real challenges we face transcend borders, walls, political parties, ideologies. The real challenges we face—pandemic, systemic racism, climate change, resource allocation, environmental degradation, inequality, poverty, hunger—affect us all. Of course, throughout history those challenges have affected the poorest and most disadvantaged of us first and worst. Now, today, each one of us must begin to act to change this.”

“You know this inescapable truth, Class of 2020, by virtue of your education.”

Your education empowers you to flourish and live lives of purpose and meaning.

“And, once you know, Class of 2020, you can’t unknow. Your education empowers you to flourish and live lives of purpose and meaning. But it also confers on you a responsibility to use your imagination, your intellect, your energy to address those real challenges, and to seek to make the world a better place for everyone. It makes you responsible for having the courage and commitment to becoming and being an agent of change through peaceful protest, civic engagement, and service. Your education makes you responsible for seeking to live a life worth living.”

“A life worth living means taking control of it, it means being unafraid of the unknown, it means speaking truth to power, it means choosing to act to make things better. It means being a leader.”

“We need your leadership, Class of 2020. We need it because, well, the adults in charge don’t seem to be addressing the real challenges we all face. They seem hesitant, unsure, as if they are waiting for something.”

“My advice to you is, don’t wait. If you wait until you’re ready, you’ll be waiting the rest of your life.”

“You see, you’ll never be fully ready for the things that matter. Most of the time, waiting until you’re ready is fear, with a capital ‘F,’ talking to you. We’re afraid that we don’t know enough, aren’t powerful enough, aren’t in the right position, that it’s the wrong time—mostly, we’re afraid that if we put our heart and soul into something it might fail. How you respond to this fear is often the difference between living a life worth living and one filled with regret. Because while it hurts to try something and fail, that pain is over pretty quickly. The pain of regret, the pain of ‘I wish I had tried…’ however, lingers forever.”

Don’t wait, Class of 2020. We need you to try. Now. The world needs you. Now. We need you to lead and inspire us all. Now. Indeed, our very future depends on it.

“Don’t wait, Class of 2020. We need you to try. Now. The world needs you. Now. We need you to lead and inspire us all. Now. Indeed, our very future depends on it.”

“You give me hope for our future, Class of 2020, in part, because I learn something every time I hear your voices. Indeed, among the things I have come to depend on at Poly is the eloquence, insight, and inspiration that are delivered whenever our students speak publicly. Our students speak so well, so often better than any adults, that among our traditions at Poly is that we don’t bring in Commencement speakers. Poly students speak at Poly’s Commencement.”

Senior Speaker Austin Somers ’20
Austin Somers '20

Barzdukas introduced Austin Somers ’20, who was chosen by his classmates as Senior Speaker. “A natural philosopher, this year’s Senior Speaker approaches every situation with curiosity and a desire to leave a lasting impact on the communities of which he’s a part. When he was peer tutoring our younger Middle School students, he recognized the need to make a deliberate connection between our Upper and Lower Schools. He successfully created the Lower School/Upper School Buddy program, which partners fourth and eleventh graders so that when the Lower School students arrive at the Dyker Heights campus as fifth graders, they have a member of the senior class looking out for them. His positive energy and genuine compassion also shine through as the MC for our Coffeehouse celebrations of student talent.”

Read the Full Text of Austin Somers’ Speech

Somers began by saying how special it was to share the “stage” with fellow speaker Emily Weinstein and with his trademark humor congratulated his classmates on graduating “from an incredibly prestigious institution as we join the ranks of notable alumni who include public officials, writers, scientists, artists, and voice actors in the Kung Fu Panda movie series.” Below are excerpts of Austin Somers’ speech.

“…I think my mom put it well after I had my interview in the fall of eighth grade,” Somers said. “She constantly went on about how genuine and down to earth Poly’s staff was. She was right: the faculty here stand out….”

“When I think of my time at this school and in this class, the memories won’t be filled with blockbuster events like proms or big games, but with the little things – the recurring experiences that became habit for us, like taking the subway home with your best friend, having your morning hangout spot with your crew, throwing the Frisbee or the football out in the back fields, or rushing to Commons to beat that dreaded lunch line.”

“We all have memories like these… and the beautiful thing is that we created them with each other. One thing I love about this class is that we have the guts to go out and meet somebody new, to go talk to somebody we’ve never spoken to before, and befriend those we normally wouldn’t naturally connect with….”

After Somers’ speech, A Cappella performed “Sunflower” by Vampire Weekend, the Class of 2020 Senior Song.

Emily Weinstein ’20, Joseph Dana Allen Award Winner
Emily Weinstein '20

Barzdukas introduced the next speaker, Emily Weinstein ’20 recipient of the Joseph Dana Allen Award, presented to the student with the highest scholarship, combined with commensurate character. “This year’s award winner is a consummate and unfailingly thoughtful student of the liberal arts,” Barzdukas said. “She has fully immersed herself in our academic program over the past four years, excelling in both the STEM fields and the humanities. One of her teachers wrote, “She is one of those students who pushes you as a teacher to constantly learn and grow and bring your best into the classroom each meeting. Her work consistently demonstrates a beautiful combination of her amazing creativity and her proficient programming ability, with every application telling a story from its documentation through its execution.” In what free time she created for herself, she was the managing editor of the Polygon, the school’s newspaper, and the Polyglot, our yearbook. She’s a singer, an artist, a writer, and a scientist. Intellectually generous, infinitely curious, and genuinely kind, she derives joy from the process of learning collaboratively with her classmates. Self-reflective and humble, she pursues knowledge for its own sake.” Below are excerpts of Emily Weinstein’s speech.

Read the Full Text of Emily Weinstein’s Speech

“If you had asked me only four months ago what I expected from the remainder of my senior year, I would not in a million years have guessed that I’d be having virtual lessons from my home and be indulging in daily pajama days.…”

“We had hoped for so much—commitment day, Prom, an in-person graduation, and many of the senior traditions that we’ve waited for for so long. And thanks to the members of our community, we were somewhat able to remedy our losses. Molly O’Connor ‘20 took charge and allowed us to still celebrate the hard work and achievements of our peers virtually on Instagram. Olivia Hurley began the new tradition of Friday-night Netflix Parties. Austin Somers works tirelessly to keep us all entertained, be it at virtual Coffeehouse or in this graduation ceremony. Shoutout to the Polyglot staff who worked overtime to get us our books, to the Polygon editors who continue to publish stories, to the Poly Math team which still competes in online competitions, and to everyone who has not given up in the face of hardship. In a time that is so directionless, your efforts have not gone unnoticed.” 

“…Poly opened my eyes to everything I could possibly study and hope for from my education. Perhaps the aspect of the Poly curriculum I am most thankful for, though, is the technology requirement. In sophomore year, I enrolled in Ms. Belford’s Introduction to Computers class….”

“I found my people, and I found my passion in computer science. The requirement Poly put in place that I originally dreaded was a blessing in disguise. Plus, I never would have learned how to make a robot out of Play-Doh containers, and we never would have gotten the army of neon green chairs in the Makerspace. That’s right, you have me to thank for those.”

“My experience at Poly highlighted the successes of the liberal arts education. I came here blind, unsure of anything. Like many of my peers, I am stumbling through my life, going day by day, trying to figure it all out. Poly opened my eyes to one thing I am passionate about, but that doesn’t account for my newfound love of statistics or that urge to pursue creative writing scratching at the back of my head.”

“To everyone listening thank you for giving me the chance to speak my mind. I am so proud of us, my fellow graduates, and no matter what, we will be all right. Congratulations.”

Conferring of Diplomas

Chair of the Board of Trustees Nicholas Gravante ’78, P’20, ’23, whose son was among the graduates, authorized the conferring of diplomas on the Class of 2020.

Green Day’s “I Hope You Had the Time of Your Life” set the mood for a video presentation of each member of the Class of 2020 from babyhood to graduating senior. Any parent could identify with one comment in the chat: “Where did all those years go?”

Senior vocalists sang the Poly Song before closing words from Barzdukas. “Graduates of Poly Prep Country Day School, on behalf of the Board of Trustees and members of the Poly family, I commend you.,” Barzdukas said. “Today is a day of celebration, but before we close, I would like to ask you to reflect on what you’ve heard today and commit to making good use of your education, to put it in the service of what is just and good. Today, you join a long line of distinguished alumni who have taken seriously that responsibility and worked to make the world a better place.”

This is your home and you are always welcome here.

“I hope that you leave for college with a deep appreciation of your time at Poly. If the virus allows it, I hope to welcome you back later this year so that we can celebrate your achievements in person. This is your home and you are always welcome here. So, I hope you always will remember that first time you saw our splendid tower reaching to the sky and will cherish the friends and memories you have made during your time at this very special place on the heights called Dyker.”

“Class of 2020, congratulations and farewell!”

A video celebrating the Class of 2020 in the arts, on the fields, on stage, in clubs, and enjoying life with friends at Poly concluded the ceremony. Graduates and their families were invited to return to the Dyker Heights campus later in the day, when administrators presented their diplomas. They also had the opportunity to have their pictures taken with posters of themselves displayed on the Oval.