After an extraordinary year that began under the cloud of a pandemic, 160 seniors capped off their final day at Hotchkiss under picture-perfect blue skies.
Family, friends, staff and faculty members –– nearly 800 guests all –– gathered socially distanced on Hoyt Field to honor the Class of 2021 in Hotchkiss’s 129th Commencement. The event marked the first time the entire class met together, in person and maskless, in a public setting since the pandemic began.
Commenting on the long-awaited moment, Head of School Craig Bradley opened the ceremony, saying, “I don’t know that I can fully express how grateful I am that almost all of us are able to be here together, in person, to celebrate this joyous occasion.”
He thanked the parents for supporting Hotchkiss through a challenging time. “I know it has been hard to not have games to attend, to not be able to come to campus to watch your students’ performances, to not be able to come to celebrate a birthday, or visit at the spur of the moment when your child was in need of some TLC. I know this was not the senior year you or we had envisioned for your student and for your family. Congratulations to one and all for reaching this moment in a challenging year,” he said.
He expressed gratitude to the Class of 2021 for working with the school community to complete the year without a major outbreak of COVID or an interruption in teaching and learning, and managing to keep the “the Hotchkiss bubble” essentially COVID-free.
“I will be eternally grateful to you – the members of the Hotchkiss community, during this time of the pandemic – for your willingness to sacrifice your personal needs for the good of the whole. Collectively, we have achieved this moment,” he said.
Bradley spoke about the value of facing difficult challenges, a theme that was echoed in the remarks that followed by the School Co-presidents Cyrus Farman-Farmaian ’21 and Keren Mikanda ’21 and by keynote speaker Julie Cotler Pottinger '87.
Bradley recounted his experience of whitewater kayaking over a dangerous stretch of rapids in Scotland when he was in graduate school. “In life, sometimes no matter how well you prepare and what you anticipate, life brings the unexpected,” he said, referring to how he averted veering off course into more treacherous waters by keeping calm and patient, and using his knowledge and skills.
“How you respond to those experiences stimulates your learning and growth, and they build resilience,” he said.
“I hope that the experience of the pandemic has demonstrated to you that at some moments in your lives, each of you is likely to find yourself facing challenges that are daunting and unfamiliar, challenges that you’d rather not face, but you’ll have no choice but to move through them,” he added.
“Trust in your skills and abilities. Use your good minds. Keep cool and keep your balance. Count on your teammates, including your Hotchkiss friends.”
After Bradley's address, School Co-presidents Cyrus Farman-Farmaian ’21 and Keren Mikanda ’21 spoke from the podium and thanked their classmates for their strength, patience, and endurance during a year of regulations, isolation, and distancing. Mikanda also noted that this year in the United States was marked by historic civil unrest.
“While we were here in the Hotchkiss bubble,” she said, “the world around us was suffering. Once again, though, our class showed that we could rise to the occasion. We organized fishbowls, walkouts, and worked to change the culture on campus towards one of empathy and understanding. We spoke out and acted, and it is our class that led the School through it all. It is our strength that has defined this year.”
In a year punctuated by Zoom calls, quarantines, and boxed lunches, Farman-Farmaian praised the class for its willingness to rise to the challenge. “We took advantage of the crisis that was laid before us this year, we persevered, and not only did we survive but also we are now stronger than ever. We are proud and immensely thankful to be a part of the Class of 2021 forever,” he said.
Earlier in the week in the Baccalaureate and Senior Awards ceremony, senior class Co-presidents Luke Gardiner and Ivy Bhandari also spoke about their classmates’ integrity during the pandemic.
Violinist Angela In Seco Choi ’21 performed Csárdás Vittorio Monti, accompanied by Instructor Fabio Witkowski on piano prior to the keynote address by Julie Cotler Pottinger ’87.
Pottinger is the author of numerous best-selling historical romance novels written under her pen name Julia Quinn. A collection of her novels was adapted into the Netflix hit series, Bridgerton, released last December. During her address, Pottinger paused to share a video from one of the show’s stars, Penelope Featherington, played by Nicola Coughlan, who extended her congratulations to the class.
In her remarks, Pottinger told senior that although this would be the last time they would be together collectively, as a whole, it would not signal an end to their ties to each other and to Hotchkiss. “You are all connected – to each other and to this place,” she said.
“You are a unit, and you will be forever bonded, perhaps in a way no other Hotchkiss class has before. You arrive, most of you at least, when the world is normal. There were no plastic dividers in the dining hall, there was no quarantine, no pods, and classes began on day one, in the classroom... Masks were for Halloween.
“You had to work together, to be together,” she said.
Pottinger shared two Hotchkiss experiences that are forever etched in her memory that reflect her resilience, sense of humor, and her lasting connection to the Hotchkiss.
During her upper mid year, she took an advanced math course taught by the formidable George Norton Stone, who back then “had been at Hotchkiss since the dawn of time, and literally wrote the textbook for Geometry, and for Advanced Algebra and Trigonometry,” Pottinger said.
She became unhinged one day in class when students were given a test that completely flummoxed her. “The math problems were unrecognizable. They might have been written in Cyrillic,” she joked. She felt tears welling up and was trying hard to avoid breaking out in a full blown sob session. when Stone, upon seeing her distress, stood in front of her desk and boomed, “Now is the time for tears! Because you can’t cry during the Advanced Placement exam!”
With that directive, she started bawling uncontrollably. To this day, she still doesn’t remember if she even passed the test, but she recalled she scored a 5 out of a possible 5 on her advanced placement math test and received a phone call from Stone who told her how proud he was of her.
“I’m willing to bet that all of you have had a moment like that here at Hotchkiss, maybe not a full-on, in-class sob, but you’ve all had a moment that was agonizing.Terrifying.Impossible.”
“Guess what? You scaled that impossible moment. Or maybe you stepped neatly around it or you hacked it apart, piece by piece, until it was dust beneath your shoes,” she said.
Another time, in an All-School Meeting, when a Harvard sociologist came to speak about subliminal advertising, she found herself facing perhaps the most embarrassing moment of her Hotchkiss career. As the lecturer clicked through ad images in a slide presentation, he paused to say: “And of course, sex always sells.” Right then, a slide popped up on full-size movie screen of an ad for Cotler Jeans. The accompany copy read: “Everyone's Trying to Get into Cotler Jeans.” (Reminder: Cotler is Pottinger’s maiden name.)
And then, "the room just exploded,” she said. “Everyone was hooting and hollering, and going absolutely nuts.”
Not every students knew who she was, but they knew there was a Cotler on campus, and Pottinger found herself practically folded into a pretzel in an attempt to disappear into her auditorium chair.
“That moment is burned into my memory. BURNED,” she said.
“But you know you get over this stuff. And eventually you laugh about it with several hundred complete strangers.”
In congratulating seniors who would soon become newly-minted Hotchkiss alumni, she added,“You made it, you’re here. You are the singularly amazing Hotchkiss Class of 2021, and this is your graduation.”
"You worked hard, you grew, you learned and overcame, and each of you deserves a round of applause.”
View a replay of the Commencement: