Poly Prep Celebrates the Class of 2021

Recent COVID protocols allowed Poly Prep’s Class of 2021 and a limited number of family members to experience the milestone of graduation in person – with many more viewing the livestream. Even the threat of rain could not stop this celebration, which had been reenvisioned numerous times throughout the spring. No one will soon forget this historic time during which students attended class in tents wearing masks and virtually from their homes. On June 4, the 124 members of the Class of 2021 finally had their day to celebrate their fortitude and achievements at Poly’s 164th Commencement.

Watch Poly Prep’s 164th Commencement on Vimeo

Due to COVID restrictions, Commencement took place on the spacious backfields with families seated at tables on the football field. Family members had to be fully vaccinated or provide a negative PCR test result to attend. A stage was constructed for the ceremony and the event was livestreamed for extended family and friends to watch in realtime.

But some traditions remained the same and the faculty and then the Class of 2021 processed onto the football field to Elgar’s “Pomp and Circumstance.”

Commencement 2021 procession
Welcome by Head of School

Head of School Audrius Barzdukas P’20 welcomed the students and their guests:

Good morning, everyone.

And, before we begin, COVID-19 is, and was, a devastating and tragic phenomenon for so many around the world and in our community—please, let’s have a moment of silence in honor of those we have lost to the pandemic. Thank you.

Welcome parents, grandparents, friends, and guests to Poly Prep Country Day School’s 164th commencement ceremony. Welcome, especially, to the Class of 2021. You, Class of 2021, were the first in our school’s history to attend your classes outdoors. So, it’s fitting that this is the first commencement in our school’s history to be held on the back fields. And it’s fitting that we are braving the elements to do so. So, we also welcome Mother Nature, who was such a part of our lives this year. I’ll be honest, I used to take the ‘welcome’ part of these events for granted. Of course, you start events like this with a ‘welcome’, but usually it is sort of pro forma: “Welcome everybody, let’s get on with the show.” Not this year.  I’m not taking it for granted this year because last year we welcomed one another through a screen. And, while it was necessary and it worked–it wasn’t as good as seeing all of you here today, in person. So, really, truly everybody let’s welcome one another.

There’s another part of welcoming that’s really important. When someone welcomes you, you always say, “Thank you.” Well, Class of 2021 there is a group of people who welcomed you every day of your educational life: your teachers, your coaches, your mentors, your deans, and most especially your parents and family–they all supported and encouraged you on your journey through Poly. They all deserve your thanks. And I would like to ask you to, right now, please stand, turn to them and give them a round of applause to say, “Thank you.” Please stay standing because there’s one more group that, especially this year, deserves our thanks: our amazing staff who kept us safe, fed us, organized our lives, built tents, cleaned our beautiful campus, and made this commencement happen–staff, we all owe you a gigantic “thank you.”

Today, Class of 2021, you also welcome the first day of your future as a graduate of Poly.

It’s an important day because that future needs you. It needs you because WE all need you. The world needs your intellect, your optimism, your energy, your good character, your commitment to seeking truth.

Your education empowers you to seek truth. And truth as a value is an inarguably good thing. Science reveals truths about nature–that’s a good thing. (Thank you vaccine scientists!) We want people to tell us the truth and we get upset when they lie to us. Truth underpins our beliefs: no one ever says, “I know that’s false, but I believe it anyway.”  We rely on truth to help get us through life. Truth is what we want to discover when we think, create, or observe. Indeed, the ongoing search for truth is an essential aspect of a well-lived life.

I’ll say it again, your education empowers you to seek truth. And the way to seek it is to challenge your own and others’ assumptions, consider new and different ideas, analyze arguments, put history and culture into context, reject banal simplicity, and embrace different perspectives and ways of thinking. This all is what you learned at Poly. This is what it means to be educated.

Robert Zimmer, President of the University of Chicago, observed that this pursuit of truth through education instills, “The habits of mind and intellectual skills of questioning and challenge that are a powerful and even necessary tool in many areas, particularly for leadership in an environment of complexity.” Zimmer noted that, “Leaders are inevitably faced with integrating different perspectives, understanding context and uncertainty, and questioning both power and its limitations in a wide variety of arguments, approaches, and options.” Leadership involves seeing what is, imagining what could be, and inspiring others to make it happen.

Class of 2021, we need you to see the world as it is, imagine how it could be better, and inspire us to make it happen. Class of 2021, we need your leadership.

We need it because leadership seems to be in short supply in our nation right now. Truth is under assault. Adult leaders are denying truth, evidence and science. They are casting fellow citizens as enemies to be vanquished rather than neighbors to be embraced. They seek to disenfranchise voices and identify some who live in our nation as “real” Americans and others as aliens.

Leadership is needed to overcome all that, to overcome the scourge of bigotry, the plague of willful ignorance, the curse of racism, the selfishness that makes winning more important than how you win.

So what are you supposed to do? Well, because speeches like this are supposed to inspire you to go out and “change the world,” here are a few tips on how to do it.

Tip 1: Keep learning.

In addition to seeking truth, your education empowers you to do many things: get a job, speak different languages, understand complicated mathematical and scientific ideas, and more. But one of the biggest things your education empowers you to do is to keep being educated. The happiest and most successful people are life-long learners. And it doesn’t really matter what you learn–crab taxonomy, flamenco dance, chess openings–just find something that interests you and go for it. Leaders are learners. Period.

Tip 2: Don’t wait.

Leaders get going, they make it happen. They don’t wait. If you wait until you’re ready, you’ll be waiting the rest of your life. You’re never really ready for the things that matter. Trust me: ask your parents if they were ready to have children. Waiting until you’re ready is fear 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. The secret that leaders know is that because it’s never the right time, that means it’s never the wrong time. Start now.

Tip 3: Fail.

Leaders understand that failure is essential to success. Failure builds resilience and it provides experience that can’t be gained any other way. Failure is a great teacher because failing hurts and that alters our minds and forces us to reconsider things. There is no substitute for failure as a teacher of lessons. Leaders inspire courage in others because they embrace failure as part of their process.

Tip 4: Own it.

Your education confers on you a responsibility to use your imagination, your intellect, your energy 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 action, peaceful protest, civic engagement and service. Your education makes you responsible for seeking to live a life worth living. Being a leader means being unafraid of the unknown, it means speaking truth to power, it means choosing to act to make things better. Being a leader means owning that responsibility.

Those are my tips for being a leader, Class of 2021: Keep learning, Don’t Wait, Fail, and Own it.

Start now, Class of 2021. We need you to start today. 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 2021, because your resilience and spirit in managing the pandemic have been inspiring. Indeed, I am inspired every time I hear your voices. 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 Talia Marash ’21
Talia Marash Senior Speaker 2021

Head of School Barzdukas introduced the Senior Speaker. Our first speaker was chosen in a free and unencumbered democratic vote of the Senior class. Our speaker possesses qualities that are rare in young people. Our speaker is infinitely fair-minded and has a true sense of self. Our speaker is never afraid to speak up when encountering foolishness, either in peers or adults. Our speaker is vice-president of the student body and, her dean writes, “No one has taken on more leadership roles on campus to make our community better. She has an incredible ability to get the attention of all of her peers without raising her voice.” When this power is paired with intellectual curiosity, you truly get something atomic. Everyone, please join me in welcoming Talia Marash.

In her speech, Talia Marash ’21 recalled her first days at Poly in sixth grade and how Ms. Ty’s encouragement got her through the first days. She was rewarded for her perseverance. “Ever since then I have continued meeting new and interesting people who have enhanced my education and taught me how to be a better person. The strongest aspect of Poly is its people, who constantly strive to make it a more knowledgeable and perceptive place. The fact that on any given day you can walk onto this oasis in the middle of Dyker Heights and see performers working on their craft on the stage, athletes giving it their all, both on the field and in the weight room, and intellectuals challenging themselves with a complicated math problem or philosophical question, is a feat within itself. There is a deep sense of awareness and connection to the communities both in and outside of these gates that enhance our everyday experiences. The unmistakable identities that are brought onto this campus every day, as well as the way they come together and interact, creates not just a school but a family.”

During this past year, Marash said, she and her classmates have thrived. “Not only have we faced a global pandemic, but also difficult social and political tensions both at home and abroad. We have made memories we will tell our children, grandchildren, and therapists. In the context of this year’s abnormality, however, our experience and relations with each other were enhanced. So many facets of our identity come out in times of struggle. We see the true way people communicate with each other in times of need, the way that they show up and advocate. The power of a person’s voice and their actions are only amplified when their passion allows others to be consumed by their cause. The power of each of our voices is undeniable in the advocacy and message it provides. Even over a computer screen, we tackled a lot of hard issues and created a distinct way of advocating in a time that did not allow us to physically support one another.”

In concluding Marash said, “Let’s always move forward as graduates of this institution with a solid foundation in the ideas and passions of the Poly community, contributing toward a life of mind, body, and above all, character.”

Read the full text of Talia Marash’s speech

Next, members of Poly’s Advanced Concert Choir sang the Senior Song, “The Road Home,” by Stephen Paulus.

Joseph Dana Allen Speaker Gauri Purohit ’21
Gauri Purohit joseph dana allen award winner 2021

Head of School Barzdukas introduced the next student speaker. The Joseph Dana Allen award is presented for highest scholarship and commensurate character. This year’s award winner is a consummate and unfailingly thoughtful student of the liberal arts. She told her dean that her most important contribution at Poly was her leadership on Honor Council, to which she’s was elected annually by her peers since 9th grade. In that and all her endeavors, her humanity and moral compass have guided her. These qualities are remarkable in combination with her outstanding academic accomplishments, which bring her to this stage today as the winner of the Joseph Dana Allen award, our school’s highest honor. Yet, the accomplishments that have propelled her up and beyond the highest reaches of our curriculum and raised the standard in all of our classrooms, are inseparable from her empathy and citizenship. It’s a pleasure to introduce someone whose omnivorous intellect, resilient energy, and kindness to all around her will be remembered long after she graduates: Gauri Purohit.

Gauri Purohit ’21, winner of the Joseph Dana Allen Award presented to the student with the highest scholarship, combined with commensurate character, was the next student speaker. Purohit recalled Commencement in 2012 when it was her sister, Vidushi, who was graduating and now so quickly it was Gauri’s turn.

Waking up early to catch the bus to school and staying late never bothered her. “I was so excited to be at such a multi-faceted institution with various resources and opportunities. That novelty never wore off. With each passing year, I continued to try different extracurriculars and take as many classes as I could, whether it be Science Olympiad and going to invitationals with some of my closest friends, dancing and singing in lighthearted musicals like Seussical, Jr, or acting in heavier, more poignant productions like The Laramie Project.”

“When I think about some of my fondest memories of this school, I think about time spent laughing with friends on the way from the science building to the band room, to cheering on my peers at pep rallies, to having deep conversations with some of my favorite teachers. But I also remember the late nights, walking down dark hallways after a late A Cappella rehearsal, trying to make my way home after a long, satisfying day. It was moments like these, walking alone in this big school with minimal light, when I realized that Poly genuinely was my second home.”

“My time at Poly has taught me so much about my interests and who I am, and I feel that it has done the same for so many of my fellow grads. When I see some of you crushing it out on the field, I am inspired by your tenacity and work ethic and your ability to manage your passions with your fierce academics. When I’m on stage, I know I’m acting alongside people who I’ll watch on Broadway someday. In my classrooms, I see future philosophers and scholars and successful business owners and entrepreneurs. Poly has bred in us a drive to go after what we want and given us the resourceful attitude to make that happen; let us carry that with us as we move forward on our diverging journeys, as we find new friends and new interests and new lives in the years to come. I hope that we can look back at these past four years, even in the unexpected circumstances that clouded these last two years, and remember all the good, all the fulfilling moments, and all the amazing people that we have met along the way.”

In conclusion, Purohit thanked her family, Emily Gardiner, her dean, and faculty who supported her and classmates through the years.

Read the full text of Gauri Purohit’s speech

Conferring of Diplomas

It was then time for Nicholas Gravante ‘78, P’20, ‘23 to authorize the conferring of diplomas, which was carried out by Head of School Barzdukas. The excitement was evident as students processed up to the stage to receive their diplomas from Barzdukas.

Senior vocalists performed  Poly’s School Song, “Far down on the heights called Dyker…”

Closing Remarks by Head of School

Graduates of Poly Prep Country Day School, on behalf of the Board of Trustees and members of the Poly family, I commend you.

Today is a day of celebration, and our wonderful Parents Association has a gift for you to pick up under the scoreboard as you leave. 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 truth and justice. Today, you join a long line of distinguished alumni who have taken seriously that responsibility and worked to make the world a better place.

I hope that you leave for college with a deep appreciation of your time at Poly. 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 2021, congratulations and farewell!

Commencement 2021
The new graduates responded by throwing their blue graduation caps high in the air in celebration.