At Graduation, Jackson Tells Class of 2022 to Follow Passions, Keep Learning

Julia Fisher addresses the class of 2022 and graduation attendees. Photos by Jason Putsché Photography, courtesy of GDS.

Soon-to-be Supreme Court Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson urged members of GDS’ class of 2022 to chart their own paths through life and never to stop learning along the way during a graduation ceremony—replete with speeches, music and a march of seniors collecting diplomas—that marked the end of a tumultuous, but ultimately resurgent, high school journey.

Jackson and the others who took the podium in George Washington University’s Lisner Auditorium on Sunday afternoon struck chords of gratitude, pride and possibility as the graduates bid farewell to GDS in what two speakers acknowledged was all but certainly their last time congregating as an entire class.

“As you embark on this new chapter,” Jackson, the parent speaker, told the class of 2022, “I hope that you will reflect upon your own agency, your power to choose a path that is consistent with your interests and your values. And whatever triumphs and tribulations you may face in the coming years, I hope that you let that autonomy of choice, and your ability to learn, ultimately embolden and empower you.”

Before the ceremony began, the audience stood and applauded as the seniors, clad in green caps and gowns, made their way to their seats on the stage.

Head of School Russell Shaw opened by praising the class of 2022 and sharing the story of his failure to land any job interviews at a recruitment fair for teachers he attended in California at the start of his career in education. “Graduates, you will fail,” Shaw said. “You will try something hard and it won’t work out.

“One thing I hope you’re each taking with you from GDS,” he continued, “is resilience and the ability to take the long view.” As he customarily does, Shaw then read a selection of quotes he had solicited from seniors about what else they gained at GDS—the confidence for self-advocacy, comfort asking questions and love for democracy among the responses.

The logistics of the ceremony, the first GDS graduation in the Lisner Auditorium since 2019, differed from past ones as a result of both Jackson’s presence and GW’s COVID-19 policies. Attendees had their bags checked by security guards and needed tickets to enter. Once inside, they were required to wear masks, per the university’s rules.

Jackson’s speech was among her first times, if not her first time, addressing a large audience since an event outside the White House the day after the Senate confirmed her, following a fraught process during which GDS faced attacks from Republican senators. But at graduation, Jackson made clear that she spoke only in her role as a parent and steered clear of any direct mention of that controversy.

Ketanji Brown Jackson, who will join the Supreme Court this summer, speaks at graduation.

“After recent events involving me and my family that some of you may have heard about,” Jackson said, she was unsure whether she still wanted to deliver the parent address. “But I ultimately focused on the upside: Here was a chance for me to give advice to my teenager, and she’d have to look up from her cellphone.”

One part of the guidance Jackson offered the class of 2022 involved the Choose Your Own Adventure series, whose children’s books direct readers to different plotlines based on their decisions. She called on the graduates to each heed their “inner voice” and pursue what inspires them rather than conforming to others’ preferences.

Principal Katie Gibson, the second to speak, after Shaw, noted that she, too, was saying goodbye to GDS, as she departs after five years at the helm of the high school. She encouraged graduates to see the positives in the pandemic that upended school life in the spring of their sophomore year, mentioning the perseverance they gained from the experience.

“Goodbyes are hard,” Gibson said. “Let’s reframe this goodbye, not as an ending, but as the beginning of a grand adventure.”

English teacher Julia Fisher, whom the class of 2022 chose as the faculty speaker, was next. She urged the graduates to “choose delight,” not merely resume-building, and keep hold of their aspirations and unfulfilled fancies. (Fisher is the Bit’s faculty advisor.)

“Our dreams are what make us who we are, perhaps more than our experiences,” Fisher said, in a speech that turned to the writing of Virginia Woolf and Samuel Taylor Coleridge.

Maddie Feldman, one of the two student speakers elected by her classmates, focused her speech on “the importance of showing up,” as she put it. She called the members of her class, the last to experience a full prepandemic year in the GDS high school, the “de facto safeguards of school tradition,” but also emphasized the need to advocate social change and let traditions evolve over time.

Miles Huh, the second senior speaker, discussed the support from the GDS community that he relied on throughout high school. “Despite the many unimaginable crises happening in the world around us,” Huh said, “when I think about what GDS has meant to me, the feeling I have is one of safety.”

Seniors were each able to distribute ten tickets, and each school employee was given one, according to Alison Grasheim, the communications director. Seniors who wanted more than ten tickets were added to a waitlist. Every person on the waitlist was given a ticket, Joyce DePass, the director of community relations, who organized the event’s logistics, told the Bit on June 8.

Grasheim said in an interview that the ticketing system was special to this year, given the high-profile speaker, and does not anticipate it will remain in place in the future.

The ceremony featured two musical interludes with seniors: a performance by a group of singers and, later, back-to-back songs by three jazz bands. The uproarious applause for the last band merged into cheers for Jackson as she ascended to the stage.

Near the start of her speech, Jackson praised the “Herculean undertaking that the GDS administration, faculty and staff undertook to make this past year of in-person classes and programming possible, and to get us to this point, to an in-person graduation.”

Jackson also noted the story of the school’s founding, as she had when asked about GDS during her Senate confirmation hearings, and lauded its mission of promoting equality and justice. “Class of 2022,” Jackson said, “you are a part of that legacy.”