Class of 2021 Salutatorian’s Remarks at Senior Night

Hanna Wurdack ’21 is the Salutatorian for the Class of 2021. She shared these remarks at Senior Night in May.

When trying to seek meaning in my high school career, the first thing I was drawn to was the literature that our school had placed in my mind and heart. Through each English class that I experienced, I became invested in tracking themes within novels and plays. There was something awe-inspiring, something ineffably moving about diving into someone else’s mind—even if it was just a made-up character.

Of the many values that MICDS has engraved in each of us, one of them has stuck out to me the most in particular. This concept is empathy. Before coming to MICDS, I did not know the word or meaning of the word “empathy.” In Middle School, the teachers referred to it as “stepping into another person’s shoes.” Though I realized that empathy was an important aspect of humanity, I had no idea the role it would play in my Upper School experience and even greater, within my character and identity.

Over the course of freshman year, I saw 156 strangers become 156 peers and later 156 friends. Within just three days of school, I remember my sister Gretel coming home, elated, praising our parents for sending us to MICDS. “I can already tell it’s an amazing school,” she said, “All the teachers and girls on the cross-country team really care about me.”

It was not surprising that MICDS was a unique place: one filled with individuals who strove to make each person feel like a name and not a number. Yes, part of this can be attributed to the size of each grade—but it was more than the smallness. It was the curriculum that shaped each of our souls—whether we knew it was happening or did not, the faculty ingrained ideas in our minds that would stick with us forever.

I remember a specific moment from my junior year when students in E Free were asked to help out with brainstorming ideas for Winter Term. One activity asked a combination of student and faculty members to sit together and create “empathy maps” in which we drew odd streets named “Compassion Avenue” and wrote about how we could make each potential class inclusive and interactive. The fact that the school included students directly in the decision-making process allowed the teachers to better gauge what people would be interested in.

Our 11th grade English class also used these maps for our St. Louis Voices project to better understand the people on whom we were reporting. I witnessed how each group’s mind shifted between telling the stories of their interviewees with a nuanced understanding of each person’s experience. While the project opened our eyes to a whole different side of St. Louis and our grade uncovered new realities about the city, the project gave us the opportunity to give voice to the voiceless. Instead of just allowing people to step into others’ shoes, empathy served as a tool which could be used to demonstrate the need for change in our community.

It was not until the global pandemic hit when I realized I had far more to learn and discover about empathy due to our class’s separation and isolation. When school began online on August 18, I was devastated, frustrated, and disappointed. I felt as though our senior year was being taken from us—everything we had worked so hard for over the years was being ruined by Zoom classes and unmuting our mics to talk and wifi problems.

Though many of us felt this way, we battled through it and by March 29, the majority of us returned to school to share our last month together. Coming back to school meant rejoining our peers and teachers. It meant seeing almost all of the 156 faces of our class. Smiling beyond the masks, in our eyes, we sensed each other’s joy of being reunited.

One moment we all shared was the day of the senior boat race, as we emerged from the water—with shocked faces—covered in dirt, moss, and the stench of the pond’s water. In this single flash of normalcy, I believe this was our class’s strongest connection in all four years—by the sheer filth, stench, laughter, and humanness shared amongst the group. We were finally able to remove our masks and relish in the moment of enjoying being just kids playing in a pond.

Circling back to the literature that spoke to my soul, one other book drew my attention: The Five People You Meet in Heaven by Mitch Albom. Though this novel was not part of our school’s core curriculum, it was one of the very first books I read over the summer before beginning freshman year.

Glossing over the pages, I came across an annotation that stood out to me–one that was starred that read:

“All the people you meet here have something to teach you” (47) →

“That there are no random acts. That we are all connected. That you can no more separate one life from another than you can separate a breeze from the wind” 

“the human spirit knows, deep down, that all lives intersect” (48).

After reading that my mind shifted. It was not just that empathy was a tool given to us to better understand the lives of others—it was much more profound than that. It was taught to us so that we could all alter each others’ lives and leave a footprint in one another’s hearts. It was not things of the mind—not calculations, not grammar, not AP multiple-choice or FRQ practice—but empathy, was the greatest gift that could ever have been given to us by allowing us to become characters in each other’s personal literature, to become one story.