Remarks From the Class of 2020 Senior Night – Faculty Speaker Marshall McCurties and Salutatorian Jon Zhang

Upper School History Teacher Marshall McCurties was the student-selected faculty speaker for the Class of 2020. Jon Zhang ’20 was the class salutatorian. They both spoke at Senior Night (a virtual event this year), and we share their inspiring remarks here as well, both in video and written form. 

Enjoy the videos below.

Here are the written remarks from Marshall McCurties.

Class of 2020:

No one could predict the final months of your high school experience would be devoid of athletics, arts, the traditional sendoff ceremonies, and toilet paper. And now as we send you off amidst tremendous social, political, and economic unrest, it can seem as if our world has unprecedented uncertainty, fear, and sadness that makes it more tempting to lay down and binge watch Carole Baskin and Joe Exotic, than to confront the challenges before us.

So that’s why I am here, to ensure you fulfill the promise of an MICDS education. Everybody knows the faculty speaker is the most important part of the graduation ceremony…(smile)… so Class of 2020, I will ask you one final time to take some notes because this will be on the test called life. 

#1: Don’t let school get in the way of your education. School is a process: a combination of spaces, people, classes and activities that rotate in a predictable, often stressful manner. That is why every time your parents ask, “How was school today?”, you give the same answer, “Fine.” Because school WAS fine; the equation of “I think I got a B+ on the math test”, multiplied by “ I had toasted ravioli for lunch”, to the square root of “practice wasn’t too hard”, equals “fine”. This question essentially asks what did you do today, when instead we need to ask, “What did you learn today?” 

You see, education is a learning-centered way of life. It is the cumulative result of reflecting on experiences, learning about a topic beyond the classroom, and seeking to understand a range of perspectives and possibilities. As you anticipate the joys of your college experience, I encourage you not to focus on what school you are going to, but on what type of education you are going to build for yourself. 

When I made my college choice, I initially based it on “school”, a particular degree program, a location, and circumstances that seemed appealing. I didn’t like my experience; it was rigid and formulaic. In short, it was “fine”. After a semester, I transferred to a school which I felt offered more chances to get an education. As I shifted my focus away from the logistics of school and towards my education, I found myself in the midst of life-changing experiences. I completed two majors and a minor, played collegiate rugby, served as the Student Body Vice President, joined the volunteer Fire Brigade, interviewed UN executives in Switzerland, tagged leatherback sea turtles in Trinidad, and chanted with Tibetan monks in a Buddhist Monastery in the foothills of the Himalayas. I constructed my education instead of just going to my school. Your time in college should be filled with opportunities and experiences which develop your love of learning both inside and outside the classroom. 

#2: Be your best. By definition being the best is an entirely singular experience, one which most of us will never know. But being your best is absolutely achievable. Don’t deprive our world of your passion, creativity, and talents – this world has too much mediocrity. Too many people refuse to be their best, and many people are never given the opportunity. 

As a sophomore in college, I took a class on the Middle Ages. All semester long my grade hovered between a B+/A-, sound familiar? The day before the final paper was due, I had made little (zero) progress. At that point, I would have rather fought the Vikings than write about them. I became acutely aware that I did not have enough research to meet the minimum requirements. Estimating my course grade, I concluded I could only achieve a B+, and thus doing poorly on this paper wouldn’t matter. Faced with doing hours more work or just being done, I decided to turn in the sub-par paper. When I got it back, I had earned my first and only C-. After class, the professor expressed his disappointment in my effort, knowing I could do much better. I was crushed. As it turned out, my original grade was higher than I had calculated, but the poor paper cost me the A- in the class and the missed A- was the grade I needed to be accepted into the college’s honors society.

I was never going to be the best writer in that class, but by choosing to not be my best, I sacrificed my academic and personal reputation. I tried to play the game of grades instead of simply doing my best. After that experience, I committed to never sacrifice my academic integrity and also realized that good enough was the enemy of my best. It’s worth noting that thanks to adherence to this principle, I earned admittance into the honors society in my final semester. Being your best does not mean being perfect. But it does mean giving each activity the time and effort it deserves which builds into a daily habit. If you do not practice being your best in the smaller moments of life, it will be impossible for you to be your best when the need is greatest. 

#3: Life is not a zero-sum game. It is a positive-sum game. I believe every single person you encounter wants to feel loved and wants to be happy. And because life is not a zero-sum game, you can positively contribute to their experience without sacrificing yours. You don’t have to make someone else feel dumb in order for you to feel smart; you don’t have to make someone else fail in order for you to succeed; silencing someone doesn’t make you heard; and most of all, you don’t have to hate in order to feel love. When we attempt to harm someone else, ultimately, we are doing greater damage to ourselves. 

For many years, I was a Head Counselor at a summer camp in Northern Michigan. My final summer my co-counselor was a guy who had just graduated from a prestigious school and accepted a lucrative position with a competitive company. While we were friendly, I was a bit jealous of how much our boss valued his intellect and talents. One evening, to make myself better, I told some other counselors a semi-embarrassing story about him that he had told me. The story got a cheap laugh from people, but I felt satisfied that I had knocked my co-counselor down a peg. 

Well, he found out, and the next day he confronted me about telling the story and was deeply hurt. I felt horrible. No amount of apologizing could excuse my decision. My attempt to hurt his status harmed our relationship; but worse, I sacrificed my integrity and trustworthiness simply because I was jealous. I falsely believed that the world was a zero-sum game – that by hurting him, I would somehow be better off – but in reality, we both lost. Regardless of my feelings, I never should have told that story. The rest of that summer, I made a concerted effort to value his talents and champion him, and soon all was forgiven. When we view the world as a positive-sum game, we can think about how we can add value to people’s experiences instead of exploiting them. 

Understanding the difference between school and education, the best and your best, and a zero-sum vs. a positive-sum can make an enormous difference in your life and the lives of others. The challenges of our world are complex and daunting, and it might be easier to ignore them than face them head-on. But there is hope – you. History has placed You. Here. Now. In this moment in time. I honestly believe that as members of the Class of 2020 you are uniquely qualified to help improve our world. It’s not an understatement to say you are the most important graduating class in modern history. 

Over the past three months, our world has hit “pause”, forcing us to examine what we value and asking ourselves: does the society we have reflect the society we want? Your entire education at MICDS has prepared you to hit “play”, and face these challenges that seem to increase every month. Your creativity, empathy, brilliance, and resilience are a standard which you have displayed not just these past three months, but the past five years I have had the privilege to know and learn from you. You are not the future of our world; you are the present. 

So not only do I say congratulations to, but also thank goodness for the Class of 2020. It is not your destiny to improve our world, it is your right.

Here are the written remarks from Jon Zhang ’20.

Good evening, ladies and gentlemen – students, parents, and faculty. First off, I’d like to thank my mom and dad for all they’ve done for me. On behalf of the MICDS Class of 2020, I’d like to thank Ms. Trueman, Mr. Small, Mr. Rainey – and Ms. Lyle before him – the college counselors and Class of 2020 advisors for putting up with us for four years, the teachers, parents, faculty, and staff, without whom, none of us would be where we are today. Thank you to the St. Louis County Department of Public Health for graciously permitting us to hold an in-person ceremony this Sunday, how fortunate we are to retain any semblance of a conventional graduation at all. Oh and now, a quick word to my fellow classmates: Psst. Hey guys, as a fellow teenager with a short-lived attention span myself, I feel obligated to tell you in advance that my speech shouldn’t take longer than 10 minutes. 10 minutes, alright? Promise. You’re welcome. So, hopefully, now that I have everyone’s attention, let’s do this. 

On April 30th, when I submitted my last English paper, I was convinced I’d never have to write another word on behalf of this school again. So when I got the call to give a speech about a month later, I felt like Bruce Wayne coming out of retirement. I fired up my old computer, placed my binge-watching of The Mandalorian on pause…then immediately re-started watching it, plus a few episodes of Mad Men, and then The Irishman…and then I started getting hungry, so I grabbed a fistful of Oreos, then some more Oreos, then several more Oreos…until it was like 2:30 in the morning, when I figured I’d have plenty of time to write my speech later. And now, I’m so excited and honored to be here to celebrate this momentous occasion. Guys … spring break finally ended!

You know, I really gotta hand it to the senior girls. All the way back in March, when us guys were minding our own business, not paying attention, with the imminent threat of coronavirus lingering in the very backs of our minds, the girls foresaw and seized the opportunity to savor those final moments, while the rest of us unknowingly spent our last days on campus together. And without anticipating it, we were whisked off-campus and away from the people we may have taken for granted, relegated to celebrating our senior spring traditions within the confines of our homes. We never got to go to senior prom; some of us had our sports seasons cancelled; we never got to share and celebrate our college decisions together as a class; and, what I was seriously looking forward to, we never got to pull any elaborate senior pranks. SERIOUSLY, sophomore year, the seniors zip-tied our backpacks, and Mr. George had to walk around with a cutter to save us. WHY didn’t WE get to screw around and pull pranks like THAT?

But in spite of all that we may have missed, it’s also important to take the time to be grateful for all the memories that we did get to create. We got to have a proper, spirited senior boat race. Congratulations to the Grabarek advisory, although the Knapp advisory put forth a great effort, and clearly had the best-decorated boat – clearly. And sure, we never got to pull any senior pranks, but as upperclassmen, we got to complain about those pesky freshmen, who always got the ice cream machine taken away. Unfortunately, not all of us got to celebrate our future college plans in-person as a class, but just go back and revisit the moment you made your final decision. Feels like forever ago, right? Perhaps you got into your dream school. Perhaps you felt the huge wave of relief wash over you once you realized all the stress was over, feeling empowered and having control over your next steps. And might I just add, how freaking cool it is that our class number is 2020? Like, could we have even asked for a more perfect-sounding graduation year?

No matter what the future holds in store, no matter what crises or challenges, I encourage us all to take the time to express gratitude for the people and experiences that have shaped who we are. When we reflect on the past we might have savored, adventures shared with others, and journeys left unfinished, please understand that each and every one of you is more resilient than you think, and you got to where you are today thanks to encouragement from others and your own merit. 

While this may not have been the ending to high school that we envisioned, the truth is, senior spring rituals are not what defines us as a class. I may not be a theater kid, but as one famous comedian put it: “Life is like improv. You have no idea what’s going to happen next, and you’re mostly just making things up as you go along” (Colbert). END QUOTE. OPEN PARENTHESES. LAST NAME: COLBERT. CLOSE PARENTHESES. PERIOD. Looks like I remembered something from English class. The point is, what truly defines us as a class is how we have decided to make things up as we went along, and how we will continue improvising our way through the challenges of this world. Now sure, some of us may have decided to “improvise” by pulling an all-nighter the day before an essay was due, but this resilience also remains omnipresent in the friendships and relationships we’ve formed and through cultivating our skills and abilities as scholars, artists, athletes, and leaders. 

The pandemic may have impacted us and everybody else, but how we respond and who we choose to be isn’t determined by external forces. Our resilience is stronger than any adversity, so please do not let it cease now. I know this because I’ve experienced it over the past few weeks, where I’ve witnessed this burgeoning confidence and determination first-hand in the streets. As we have matured into 167 responsible young men and women, I am confident that all of us are prepared to use our voices for what is good and right, to treat all people with compassion, to lead lives of purpose and service. 

2020 may have gotten off to a rocky start, but it also represents a major threshold we must choose to cross – the year our class gets to step foot in the world, donning our cloth face masks; and whoever you are, whatever your goals, and wherever you end up, there are ways, big and small, that you can participate in making the world better for everyone. 

So without further ado, congratulations again to the magnificent Class of 2020, and I look forward to seeing everyone again this Sunday. Congratulations to all of you, each and every one of us, for successfully completing…the easiest 18 years of our damn lives. Thank you.