2013 Commencement Speech

Academy Principal Kevin Conway

Good Evening. It’s a pleasure to welcome everyone – parents, grandparents, family members and friends – to celebrate this important moment in the lives of our seniors. Tradition calls for me to present the Class to the President before the awarding of diplomas. My challenge is to describe this class to you in the next few minutes.

Obviously, as with any talented and diverse group of people, the class is greater than the sum of its 422 individual parts. So what can I say that would help you to know the class better? I’ve been thinking about this question for several months. In the end, I was inspired by a Commencement speech given last June by a teacher at Wellesley High School in Massachusetts.

Perhaps some of you remember the media sensation that resulted when the speaker delivered what has become known on YouTube as the “You are not special” speech. Imagine telling students at their graduation that they aren’t special? It became a national news story and the speaker was on all the morning talk shows. The YouTube link has been visited nearly two million times. News organizations from the Boston Globe to the New York Daily News to the Huffington Post all carried stories.

What I want to do tonight is the opposite. I want to tell you what is special about the Class of 2013. One way to highlight the specialness of the Class is to talk about the accomplishments of its members. For the Class of 2013 there have been too many to cover in any comprehensive manner this evening. But to give you some idea, consider academics. Students in this Class have been the recipients of numerous awards, honors and scholarships. For example, the students seated before you tonight represent less than 4 percent of this year’s graduating seniors in Hawai‘i, yet 29 percent of all the National Merit semi-finalists and 35 percent of the Presidential Scholar candidates from Hawai‘i are members of the Class.

Certainly, the Class is special for its extraordinary talent in the arts, music, dance and theater. Student performances this past year, led every instance by seniors, were of a quality that could only be matched by schools specializing in the arts.

Without a doubt, this Class is special for its impressive athletic achievement, and for how well they represented Punahou. If you’ve followed the progress of our varsity teams, you already know that Punahou teams captured ten state championships and nine second place finishes. Punahou seniors led Buff ‘n Blue teams to 22 ILH championships. Even more impressive is the fact that more than 200 members of the Class contributed to this success by participating in at least one varsity sport.

Perhaps most importantly, the Class will be remembered for their generous spirits and for thousands and thousands of hours of service to their communities, their families, their school and one another.

In order to get another perspective on the uniqueness of this Class, and to help me more specifically describe why they are special, I asked the people who know them best – their teachers – for help. I received many detailed response and can cite only a few in the time available. Here’s a sample of how your teachers responded to the question: What is special about the Class of 2013?

The faculty identified several characteristics that make this Class special and one of those features is the diversity of the Class. Here’s a sample of what your teachers had to say:

  • We often label our Classes as “diverse,” but I think the Class of 2013 is an exceptionally diverse, unique and unusually talented group.
  • Another teacher wrote that one of his students told him the Class got along so well because each member cares so passionately about what they do, and they do so many different things. The student said, “My best friends are painters, musicians, writers, performers, photographers and athletes. We all appreciate each other’s unique talents; that’s what keeps our friendships so tight-knit.”
  • From another: They know their collective gifts can give rise to a better result. It makes them an effective team. The trust they have in one another is real and lasting.
  • An English teacher says: I have decided what makes the Class special and unique is that, quite simply, it allows its members to be special and unique! I know you’re not looking for a metaphor, but one kept popping up in my mind anyway. I view this class as a collection of Marvel superheroes – no superhero alike, each one possessing his or her own superpowers, but each aware of, and deeply respectful of, the different superpowers of his or her classmates. Indeed, they not only give each other the freedom to express their uniqueness, they encourage it. Their embrace of each other’s differences is what makes this Class special.
  • But despite their diversity, as someone who knows the class very well said to me, “They have come together to a degree that is unique in my experience.”

Another theme that emerged repeatedly was how supportive these students are of one another, especially in the face of adversity. A few quotes:

  • One of the special things about this class is the way they deal with crises and come to one another’s aid when needed. Unfortunately, this Class has had experience dealing with challenges, but it’s nice to see how they rally to support one another when needed.
  • Another wrote, “Your resiliency has been inspiring. You have endured your share of setbacks and challenges, but the manner in which you have chosen to deal with tough situations has been special.”
  • Someone else said, I have been continually impressed and heartened by their courage and support for one another and their teachers. Listening to them share their talents, dreams and troubles in Chapel, I was often moved by the presenters as well as the audience who supported and cheered them on.

The final theme was respect. This quality was noted, in one way or another, by almost every teacher who wrote to me. Here is a very small sample of the comments I received:

  • What is special is their respect for each other and for everyone else on campus.
  • They are a tolerant bunch!
  • The Hawaiian word for respect is ho‘ihi. I think the Class of 2013 is uniquely ho‘ihi.

At the end of the day, maybe the most special feature of your Class is the aloha you have for one another. Aloha that has grown and multiplied through variety show, and senior sing, and skip day, and all the other end-of-the-year events. Aloha that will continue to grow and strengthen after you leave Punahou. Do you know that there are 88,831 different bonds possible between two people in a class of 422? Many of these 88,831 bonds have not yet been forged. The strength and durability of these bonds of aloha and friendship are really what makes this Class special and unique.

Before concluding, I am going to invite the seniors to honor two groups of people who have provided abundant support, example, patience and love – the people who came into your life for a reason. The people who brought something for you to learn. Would all Punahou faculty and staff wherever you are seated please stand and be recognized.

No graduation ceremony is complete without paying tribute to the people most responsible for leading you to this important moment, who have been there since the beginning. Because you knew them, you were changed for good. Would all parents, grandparents and family members of the Class of 2013 please stand and be recognized by the graduates.

Dr. Scott, on behalf of the faculty and staff, I am very pleased to present to you the Class of 2013.