After a few reminiscences and a speech encouraging them to tap into their quirks, 544 students became Oakton High School graduates Monday at George Mason University Patriot Center.
Senior class president Catherine Mahoney started the proceedings with a welcome address in which she expressed appreciation for her classmates and marveled at the journey she has taken with them over the past four years.
"On Sept. 4, 2007, when I began my freshman year, this day seemed impossibly far off. At that time, when I could count on the fingers of one hand the number of people I knew at Oakton High School, never would I have imagined that I would stand in front of hundreds of classmates and friends speaking, ready to begin a new chapter in our lives."
After Dr. John Banbury, principal, awarded Kirin Gupta with the Faculty Award — given to a graduating student "who has selflessly and generously contributed to Oakton High School community over the course of their tenure" — Grace Newman gave a speech reflecting on the bond she and her classmates will always have together.
"We've been through a lot together, you and I. Regardless of whether we're close friends or I've never really had the chance to get to know you," she said. "We're a community of sorts: Oakton High School class of 2011. We grew up in a common era: the age of 9/11 and the internet, of TSA and Twitter, of political revolutions based on Facebook. Things that no one before ever could have imagined."
She outlined the uncertainty that comes with graduating high school, and said she is scared and excited to see what's next for her and her classmates.
"It makes me wonder what stories I'll hear at our 20th reunion or whose name I'll see in the paper. It makes me wonder what stories I'll be telling you," Newman said. "And so, class of 2011, celebrate a lot and maybe cry a little, too. We're heading off to wherever we're going next."
Alexandra Robbins, New York Times best-selling author, offered her words of wisdom for the graduating class: "Different is good."
Her speech tapped into the same themes of her latest book, The Geeks Shall Inherit the Earth, in which she defines "quirk theory," a phrase she coined to describe how the differences that alienate high-schoolers from their classmates later become the traits people admire and respect later in life.
"Quirk theory works because different is good. When you're in school, the things that make you different may make you a target," Robbins said. "When you're an adult, the things that make you different make you interesting and fun."
She advised students to not give in to the idea that life is like a conveyor belt, on which people are stuck making the required stops: high school, college, work, family.
"There is absolutely no reason you can't step off the track and catch your breath," she said. "... Dream big, yes. But dreams change, and that's fine. Just know that you don't have to be a future leader of America to feel meaningful, to find happiness, to have a great life. So my message today is to remind you to pay close attention to the person you are in between those notches on the conveyor belt."