ANDOVER — It was a day of ‘firsts’ at the 235th commencement exercises at Phillips Academy yesterday.
John Palfrey, the new head of school, presided over his first “Order of Exercises at Exhibition” as it’s traditionally known.
Both girls and boys held roses and boys wore sky-blue arm bands, as a show of solidarity between the formerly all-girls Abbot School and the formerly all-boys Andover, separated by Route 28 on the hill overlooking downtown.
And it was the first day of sunny skies following a week of fickle weather.
“The sunshine on this day is for a reason,” Palfrey said in his remarks to the 323 graduates. “It’s because of the wonderful, brilliant class of 2013. You will always have a special place in my heart as the first graduating class in my time at the school.”
He praised the class as having the “right blend of respectful and rabble-rousing” and noted that the idea for boys to wear arm bands and carry roses was a last-minute change to the program. It was a change, he said, that was made with “honor and subtlety.”
He talked about another first at the school this year, the first-ever Spring Arts Festival.
“It was memorable because of the expressiveness and happiness of all those who participated, but also because it was something created from the imagination - brought about from nothing,” he said.
“You have talent galore,” he told the students, who cheered often, gave a standing ovation to the faculty, and showed their spirit during the traditional handing out of diplomas in a big circle on the lawn near Main Street.
After the last diploma made it around the gathering of newly minted graduates, the students rushed the middle, holding diplomas aloft and dancing together while parents, relatives and faculty trained cameras and smart phones on the spectacle.
Andover residents Paul and Laurie Fraser watched as their son, Connor, received his diploma.
“It’s gone by quickly,” Paul Fraser said. “He worked hard to get himself in here. It was a perfect fit for him.”
A product of West Elementary and Middle Schools in Andover, Connor Fraser was looking for a challenge when he took the initiative himself to apply to the school, his parents said.
He’s glad he did.
“It was great,” said Fraser, as he clutched his diploma. “When it was hard, it was hard, but in the end, it was worth it.”
He was joined by 37 other Andover residents who graduated yesterday, including class president Hemang Kaul, who gave an upbeat and rousing commencement address, which started off humorously and ended seriously.
“When I finally sat down last night to write this speech,” he started, “I tried to recall the most important moments of my time here at Andover, but I couldn’t remember anything.”
He said he then checked his Facebook newsfeed to “jog my memory,” and still came up empty. “I feel kind of like I did when I finished the last season of the TV show ‘Lost.’ Lost.”
But he did end up giving a speech about commencement, a word he struggled to understand.
“It finally came to me,” he said. “What we were commencing was our lives as graduates of this institution. It was a bittersweet realization though.” He said he would miss his friends, and the “living, laughing, crying, dancing, enjoying, breathing and dying together in unison” that marked their four years together.
“Our lives will be insufferably separate, and each of us will soon call a different place home,” he said.
In addition to the 38 students from Andover, there were six graduates from North Andover, three from Lawrence, and two each from Haverhill and Methuen.
Two of the award winners were also from Andover, including Piper Leigh Curtis, who was given the Yale Bowl for attaining the highest proficiency in scholarship and athletics, and Emily Field, who won the Faculty Prize for outstanding scholarship her senior year.
Cameron Morose of Haverhill won the Non Sibi Award for his work on behalf of others at the school.
Dozens of countries from around the world were also represented in the Class of 2013, as symbolized by the array of flags on either side of the gathering on the grass outside Samuel Phillips Hall.
Nine relatives of Pallavi Prakash of New Delhi, India, flew in for the graduation, including five from India and four from Vancouver, Canada.
People came from all over the United States, too, including 16 people from East Texas, there to congratulate Michael Quackenbush May III, of Crockett, TX.
“He Googled the top boarding schools in the United States, downloaded the application and did it himself,” said Theresa Ramsey, also of Crockett, Texas, one of those present for the occasion.
His aunt, Anne Walker, said her nephew “loved it and got an unbelievable education.”
The group flew in for the weekend, rented an R/V, and are headed to Maine and other vacation spots along the East Coast to help celebrate Michael’s graduation. He heads to Williams College in the fall.
Warren Peck of New Orleans said his daughter, Diondra Peck, loved her experience at Andover and likes New England so much she’s going to stay - and attend Harvard in the fall.
“She doesn’t want to leave Boston,” said Peck, noting that she got offers from top colleges across the country but decided to stay in the Boston area.