By Peter Noonan
Dear Graduates of 2020,
Every year around this time I get an invitation by the Falls Church News-Press to make a statement about our annual graduation celebration. Let me begin by offering a heartfelt “Congratulations!” to the class of 2020. Your academic accomplishments and the journey to get to this point have been extraordinary and unprecedented. To receive a diploma from George Mason High School is an honor and a significant achievement. I am so very proud of you!
It is hard to put the experiences of this past year into words. In my nearly 30 year career, I have never experienced a school year or graduation like this one. It probably goes without saying that you haven’t either. You have been asked to endure challenges and bear witness to events that will change the course of our nation. In just the past few months, we have experienced a global pandemic, the senseless and tragic public killing of a black man, and a country that is at once bound together by these events and yet politically polarized. To be sure, this is a complex and uncertain time to be launching into your next way-point of life.
However, I know you. In the past four years, we have built a relationship and I’ve seen what you are capable of — your resilience and persistence to overcome. You have shown your leadership skills. You have taken on gun violence by organizing a student walkout and protest on the Stadium Field. You have taken up and taken on, in a unified fashion, issues when you saw injustice for fellow classmates. And I have seen, heard, and felt your reaction to the murder of George Floyd just last week. Today, Thursday, June 4th, I will be marching by your side through the streets of Falls Church in the name of racial justice in a march that YOU coordinated using the medium you know best: social media. I see you, Class of 2020, I hear you, and…I know you.
You are the light. You have witnessed some of the darkest and ugliest days in recent American history and you have shown up offering clarity of purpose, resolve, and a collective spirit that has helped us all transcend the moment. You helped each other and our “Little City” find ways to grieve, release our collective tensions in a constructive, thoughtful, and meaningful way, and move the needle of progress for a better world. You did this when you were teenagers…It is more that many of the adults in the world can do even when they have advantages that often come with age, wealth, and positionality. You bring us hope for better days.
It was once said, “With great power comes great responsibility.” I am a huge fan of the Marvel series but I am sorry to report that it was not Spiderman’s Uncle Ben who first uttered these words. It was Voltaire, according to Google. I would like to pose a challenge to you, with a slight modification. With great privilege comes great responsibility. I submit to you that graduating from GMHS — a school that is so supported and loved by the Falls Church City community — has bestowed upon you great privileges. Your teachers (and parents, mentors, and cherished ones) have worked tirelessly to support your education and your personal growth and development. They have invested in you, sacrificed for you, and cultivated with you the knowledge, skills, and abilities necessary for achieving great things in life. Even during these very challenging times, I challenge you to take a moment to sit in that privilege…to take stock…and to think critically about how you can use your earned and unearned privileges to change America and the World for the better. Ask yourself, “What will be my legacy and how can I use my GMHS experience to keep advancing that collective spirit for good?” “What is my personal responsibility to myself, my family, my community, my country, and to the planet?” I am so confident that you will do great things as you tackle life’s challenges because…I know you.
This is your time. This is your moment. You were made for this moment. It is cliche, it is a platitude, it may be banal but this time, like the world you face as you graduate, it is different and so are you. You are going to lead us out of the chaos, you are going to bring justice to the world, and you are going to guide us to national and global peace. No pressure…It is a call to action that I know you will accept because… I know you.
Go forth and be brilliant. At a distance. With a mask. For now.
With love and admiration,
Dr. Peter Noonan
Superintendent of Schools
Falls Church City Public Schools
Peter Noonan is the superintendent of Falls Church City Public Schools