Tucked inside every diploma of the Berkeley High School graduating class of 2008 is a voter registration card, something principal Jim Slemp didn’t forget to point out amidst all the exhortation, advice and pranks at the Greek Theater on Friday.
More than 7,000 people were on hand to cheer the Berkeley High graduates, who in their red and yellow academic regalia were like kings and queens for a day.
After congratulating the graduates, Slemp went a step further than the other commencement day speakers to remind his students about their role in civic participation.
“This day will stay in your memory for a long time as a reminder of the power you have had over your own lives,” he said. “I urge you to do two things. You take great pride in saying you are from Berkeley High, now go make your lives extraordinary, and, vote in the presidential election in November. You give me hope for the future.”
The bowels of the Greek Theater resounded with the deafening roar of shouts, screams and cries as the graduates threw their caps in the air and clapped, and then ascended the stage to receive their diplomas.
Former Washington Elementary School teacher Andrew Galpern clicked away from his front-row seat, trying his best to capture every minute of the three-hour extravaganza, which featured music, dance and poetry by Berkeley High students, faculty and alumni.
“My first-grade class is graduating today,” Galpern said excitedly. “I have around 60 kids out there, and I am rooting for all of them. They were my first class 12 years ago and they are all so grown up today. Take this girl right here, she’s grown so tall I couldn’t recognize her at first. It’s nice to know that wherever they go and whatever they do, I will always play an important part in it.”
Inside the threater, 814 graduates lined up at 5 p.m., carrying everything from orchids to balloons to hastily purchased hot dogs as they took their seats inside the pit.
“I am delighted that they inserted voter registration cards into our diplomas,” said Rio Bauce, the student representative on the school board this year and the Planet’s Berkeley High correspondent, who is off to Pitzer College in Claremont this fall. “I think a lot of people will take advantage of that. Berkeley High is a very political place, but not a lot of students are registered to vote.”
Berkeley High student newspaper The Jacket columnist Will Kruse looked on with wonder as his peers danced to rapper M.I.A’s “Paper Planes.” Kruse, who was also in the school’s orchestra band, will be attending Boston University in August to pursue journalism.
“It’s magical, it’s so high energy,” seniors Ian Horton and Chris Fish murmured from their seats.
UC Santa Cruz will see the most Berkeley High graduates this year (26), followed by UCLA (18) and UC Davis (17).
Berkeley High senior Nadav Kariv was selected to play for a professional Israeli soccer team earlier this year, and others like Emmanuele Allamani and Jessica Tong are off to Florence, Italy, and Vancouver, B.C. respectively, for their undergraduate studies.
A few graduates reminisced about the last four year years at Berkeley High, and others gave their peers friendly advice.
“As we become the movers and shakers and cookie makers, we will remember the liars, the cheaters and the pumpkin eaters,” said senior Lize Veale, who described Berkeley High as “the place that giveth and the place that taketh away.”
“Be not the slave of your own past,” senior Jasper Hitchins told his classmates. “Don’t be the nerd who remembers only how he was picked on in fifth grade or the rebel who thinks how much of a waste school was. The world is waiting for us, so change.”
The total cost of renting the Greek Theatre from UC Berkeley came with a $17,000 price tag, including $9,000 for the space alone, district spokesperson Mark Coplan said. The rest was spent on security, which included 15 to 20 UC Berkeley and Berkeley Police Department officers and 18 Berkeley High safety officers who controlled the traffic, and patrolled different areas of the theatre, Coplan said.
Berkeley High’s total budget for the graduation ceremony was $30,000, which comes from the district’s General Fund. The sound system cost $6,000, Coplan said.
Vice principal Pasquale Scuderi confiscated inflated rubber balls on at least eight occasions, much to the dismay of the graduates, who were having their own little celebration inside the pit bouncing them around.
All eyes were turned on the stage when Robert McKnight, chair of the African American Studies Department at Berkeley High, appeared to make a speech.
“What a marvelous privilege it is to have been invited to share in this joyous moment of your life,” McKnight, who will be retiring this year, told students. “I want to share with you that I am also a graduate of the class of 2008. In a span of four short years you have arrived at the end of a journey that has taken me 34 years to complete.”
McKnight gave practical advice to students and quoted from Martin Luther King Jr.
“There will be days when there will be more days in the month than there are dollars in your pocket, but I want you to tell the world ‘I am teachable,’” he said to a standing ovation.
McKnight was preceded by his successor Paul Griffin, who called students the descendants of the Mayans, the Incans and great African Americans and Asians.
“I challenge you to accept that diploma and no longer stand for racism and sexism,” he said. “I challenge you to be that generation that will light up the sky. Take that diploma and understand that you will radiate greatness. Class of 2008, this is for you.”