Lighting the Way

Three parent affinity groups honored their graduating seniors of color with a candlelight ceremony before Commencement week.

Thirty years ago, when he was new to Sidwell Friends, Mamadou Guèye saw a T-shirt in the School store that he’s never forgotten. It said, “Sidwell: All It Takes Is All You’ve Got.”

The Upper School principal shared that memory during a recent celebration for graduating students of color, hosted by a group of people who have supported the almost-graduates with all they had: their parents.

The Parents of Black Students (PBS), Parents of Asian Students (PAS), and Parents of Latino Students (PLAS) affinity groups joined forces to honor their seniors with dinner and fellowship, followed by a candlelight tribute ceremony in the Robert L. Smith Meeting Room. They also used the occasion to celebrate the friendships and encouragement that membership in the groups provides.

PBS Clerk Georgine Newman-Alawode told those assembled that diversity was “one of the reasons the School was so attractive to us” when deciding where she and her husband would send their children. (Forty-eight percent of SFS students are students of color.) To the seniors, she said, “You have made a tremendous difference to our community just by being yourselves. Every little bit of diversity makes the world a better place.”

Before the ceremony, students heard heartfelt remarks from faculty, staff, and administrators who’ve watched them evolve over the years into “leaders, athletes, scholars, intellectuals, and artists,” as Head of School Bryan Garman noted. He shared inspiring passages from works by Pablo Neruda, Nikki Giovanni, and Maxine Hong Kingston and offered advice both practical (“Try to hear that little [parental] voice in the back of your head when you’re not with them”) and aspirational (“Don’t be fettered by the conventions of society”).

Mamadou reminded students that grades “are only one measure of success” and that it’s also important to celebrate having a community that cherishes diversity and “inclusion in its entirety.” His advice: “Go into the world and let your life speak. I promise we will hear you.”

Upper School English teacher Hayes Davis, who coordinates the division’s equity, justice, and community efforts, asked everyone to consider, “Are we a community that welcomes diversity, or are we a diverse community?”

Upper School Dean Michael Woods reported that he found “a lot of joy” in knowing all the students, and Upper School history teacher Shields Sundberg spoke about the wisdom that passes from one generation to the next, thanking students for sharing “the kind of love that makes you want to be a better person.”

Before the evening ended with a solemn candle-lighting ceremony, students took the floor and shared a favorite memory, their most embarrassing moment, or advice to their 9th grade selves. Among their suggestions:

  • “There’s who you want to be vs. who you want to want to be. It’s always better to go with the first one.”
  • “Strike up conversations with teachers—really deep conversations, or just complain about lunch.”
  • “Value the people you’re working with. No matter how hard it gets, you’re all in the same boat.”
  • “Push yourself to not be afraid of making a mistake.”
  • “Sometimes success is not quantifiable. Find something you love so you can be happy with yourself.”

And, finally, this counsel: “Enjoy it more. It doesn’t last as long as you think it will.”

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