In his first visit to the City of Falls Church since he was running for statewide office in 2017, Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam graced the stage set up on George Mason High School’s football field yesterday morning to deliver the commencement address to the school’s Class of 2021.
It marked one of the first public in-person events held at the school since the Covid-19 pandemic hit in March 2020 and served to bring closure to the Falls Church Public School System’s 14-month trevail navigating the difficult and often controversial, at least among some parents, decisions about virtual, hybrid and other learning options that left few people happy.
But if there was the unhappy part, the good and gracious part prevailed at the ceremony, which closely resembled a classic high school graduation except that the colorfully-clad graduates in their caps and gowns were seated in a socially distant manner on folding chairs that tended to sink into the football field turf.Parents, relatives, family and friends mostly sat in the grandstand, though others stood behind the graduates on the field and there were over 200 who viewed the live video feed on YouTube.
The backdrop to the event, besides the veritably roaring buzz of the Brood X cicadas that arrive every 17 years, was the brand spanking new high school complex adjacent the field, where at a cost of $120 million, students had a brief taste this spring and will fully occupy this fall and beyond.
“I couldn’t be more proud today,” Superintendent Peter Noonan told the graduates. “You were 8th graders when I came here four years ago, and we’re now moving to a new high school, having survived the pandemic, a year of social unrest and new awakening of social justice, an ambiguous journey bringing you, the first graduates of the new high school,” Noonan said, referring to his commentary that is published in this edition of the News-Press on Page 7.
“It has been unprecedented, and you have shown a collective flexibility, kindness, care for others and a continually gracious spirit,” he told the students.
He noted that the set of principles behind the International Baccalaureate program have given everyone things to aspire to. He said “the watchword to navigate the aforementioned traits is ‘resilience.’”
“You’ve modelled behavior for others, showing strong lessons of resilience that all should aspire to have. Filled with hope, we all need the graciousness that makes the world a better place.”
The graduates included 50 who earned IB diplomas, 82 who won George Mason scholar awards (a cumulative grade point average of 3.85 or higher) and 69 who qualified as valedictory scholars.
Northam led off the program before stepping out early to get back to his day job in Richmond. While promising the students he’d adhere to “the 3 B’s,” to be “brief, brilliant and be gone,” he acknowledged “this is a wonderful time in your lives to graduate, and said that while he’d add arts and health care to the STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) curriculum, the jobs of the 21st century will focus a lot on cybersecurity.
“Aim high, the sky’s the limit, don’t let anyone tell you you can’t do something, don’t be afraid of making mistakes,” he advised. “The world needs you now, but along your climb to success, don’t forget where you came from. At the end of the day, family and friends are the most important things.”
He urged students going off to college to “call home once a week, ask for mom and tell her how much you love her.”
Falls Church Mayor David Tarter hailed “the inaugural graduates of the City’s new high school that “cost more than the annual budget of the City” and demonstrates education as the cornerstone of the Falls Church community,” which he described as “close knit” and its schools as “intimate.”
Raised by his aunt himself, he urged the graduates to value their community, saying they should know their achievements “are not of their own doing, alone.”
“Little things matter,” he said. “Show up, follow the basics, follow what inspires you and makes you happy, refuse to surrender, and wherever you go, bring a little of Falls Church with you.”