NSA graduates 58

Published 7:55 pm Saturday, May 27, 2017

Nansemond-Suffolk Academy added 58 to its alumni ranks Saturday during commencement ceremonies on the front lawn at the Pruden Boulevard campus.

The ceremony was marked by inspiring and serious words from the guest speaker, an optimistic speech from the salutatorian, a humorous routine from the valedictorian and an emotional sendoff from the faculty.

In a bit of an unusual turn of events, an assignment in their English course more than a year ago led to the students requesting their own commencement speaker.

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Members of the class of 2017 read Jon Krakauer’s book “Into the Wild” during their junior year. The nonfiction work tells the story of Chris McCandless, a young man from a well-to-do family in Northern Virginia whose wanderlust led him into the Alaskan wilderness — and eventually to his death — in 1992.

Valedictorian Allison Gottlieb penned hilarious thank-you notes in the style of Jimmy Fallon during her speech on Saturday.

As they did their own research after reading Krakauer’s book, the students asked if they could read “The Wild Trust,” the memoir of Chris McCandless’ sister, Carine McCandless. They then learned she lives in the Hampton Roads area and enlisted her to be their commencement speaker.

Carine McCandless worked with Krakauer as he wrote his book and also was an advisor and contributor to Sean Penn for his film adaptation of the book. But she asked both to leave out certain parts of her brother’s story, which she now talks about and which are described in the memoir.

She told of a home full of abuse as a child and said the guilt and turmoil led her brother to flee into what he considered true freedom.

“I learned some incredibly important lessons from Chris,” she said. “He wasn’t only my brother; he was my best friend. I took those lessons with me into my own journey into a life without him.”

McCandless described the various reactions to her brother’s story. “Some thought he was brilliant; others thought he was just reckless,” she said. Not knowing the whole story because of the omissions she requested, readers filled in the blanks on what could have caused McCandless’ journey — everything from mental illness to a death wish.

“I realized they learned far more from what makes Chris human than from what made him iconic,” she said of why she decided to write her memoir and tell the whole story.

“It is incredibly important for you to learn the difference between selfishness and self-awareness,” she said. “One of the greatest things you can hope to do in this life is inspire another person. Chris has done that for so many.”

Salutatorian Kaila Pfrang gave an inspiring speech.

“Knowledge is the most important thing in our world,” she said. “We have the ability to create our own paths. We hold the pencils and the pens and even the crayons to leave our signatures behind.”

Valedictorian Allison Gottlieb, on the other hand, decided to lighten the mood with her rendition of Jimmy Fallon’s thank-you notes.

“Thank you, 8:10 a.m., for being the time at which I was supposed to arrive at school,” she said, as two other students held up funny placards and accompanied her on the keyboard. “And thank you, 8:15 a.m., for being the time at which I actually showed up.”

She later channeled Walt Disney and donned a mortarboard with Mickey ears.

The class of 2017 earned $2 million in scholarship offers and was accepted to 90 colleges, Head of Upper School Kim Aston said. They will attend 32 different schools in the U.S. and Canada.