Most Berkeley High School seniors who graduated last week will begin their studies at a college or university this fall. Others will work or travel. One will study ballet in Russia, another plans to move to India and a third will try his luck auditioning for Broadway plays in New York.
In his commencement speech at the Greek Theater on Friday, graduate David Chernicoff spoke of the shared experience of his classmates: “Trying to explain the Berkeley High experience to an outsider is like trying to explain color to a blind person, or music to a deaf person,” he said. “There will always be elements whose essence you just can’t convey no matter which words you choose.”
Chernicoff, who wrote for the school newspaper, the Berkeley High Jacket, acted in several school plays and musicals and was president of the Berkeley High Music Collective, begins his freshman year at Yale University in September.
But though the 700 graduates shared the same hallways for four years, the graduates’ journey to center stage of the Greek Theater on Friday took various paths.
Tina Walker, a member of the graduating class, watched as her six younger siblings bounced from foster home to foster home. When her parents divorced, Walker stayed with her mother, living out of relatives’ homes until they eventually ended up homeless on the streets of Sacramento.
Walker eventually moved in with her uncle and his family while her siblings lived in many different places. She began at Berkeley High as a ninth-grader and excelled, often relying on her teachers and friends as the stabilizing forces in her life. She begins studies at Langston University in Oklahoma this fall.
“You put a smile on your face and put all the issues away,” Walker said.
Walker’s classmate, Gabby Miller, devoted the majority of her energy to art during her high school career. As a junior, Miller took a semester off from Berkeley High to study at The Oxbow School in Napa, a boarding school that provides an intensive semester in the visual arts for high school juniors and seniors. Though Miller had painted since she was young, her semester at Oxbow taught her formal techniques and the use of different media, she said.
“It’s the way I filter the world,” Miller said. “It’s given me a much better understanding of who I am.”
For her final project at Oxbow, Miller made a mural out of sheets of paper on which she wrote her stream of consciousness for five hours a day for two weeks. She combined the writings with a painting at the bottom.
“It was about everything that was happening,” Miller said about her piece. “That was a very empowering experience.”
Miller, who will attend Reed College in Oregon in the fall, recently was legally ordained as a minister in the Universal Life Church. This summer, she will preside over the ceremony to renew her parents’ wedding vows on their 30th anniversary.
Tania Lown-Hecht had every excuse not to graduate on time. She was diagnosed with leukemia during her junior year and missed all of second semester while undergoing chemotherapy. But Lown-Hecht put her studies first throughout her ordeal, propping her heavy textbook for Advanced Placement Biology on the table by her hospital bed to continue to study.
“I wasn’t going to lay there feeling sorry for myself,” Lown-Hecht said. “I wasn’t going to give up.”
Lown-Hecht, who is now in remission from cancer, continued to study during the summer and used outside tutors to keep on pace with her classmates.
She took classes through Berkeley High’s Independent Studies program this year and did much of her schoolwork from home while working as opinion editor of the Berkeley High Jacket. Lown-Hecht will attend Whitman College in Washington this fall.
About 90 percent of each Berkeley High graduating class has gone on to college in past years.
The most popular college choice for the class of 2003 was the University of California at Santa Cruz, with 25 students reporting enrollment there. Last year, an all-time high 47 graduates from Berkeley High enrolled at the school.
Other University of California schools drew high numbers of graduates as well, with 21 reporting UC Davis as their college choice and 16 picking UC Berkeley. Ten students will attend UCLA, and four will head off to UC San Diego.
Ten students will attend Laney College in Oakland and 14 will attend Diablo Valley College in Pleasant Hill. The most popular private college for the class of 2003 was New York University, which attracted nine students.
Berkeley High School Dean Meg Matan said the unique experiences that the members of the class of 2003 bring to Berkeley High is what makes the school so special.
“They’re what keeps the place running in the face of budget problems and principals leaving and everything else,” Matan said. “This class is amazing. I’m going to miss them.”