Congratulations and Thank You, Damien Memorial School Class of 2016

The announcement came over the classroom intercom. It required all faculty members to meet in a single room 15 minutes before the start of the school day. It was highly unusual. I remember the anxiety and murmur of speculation that filled the small room. Mr. Ho entered the room. He informed us the school would admit females beginning the following school year. We were told not to speak of this matter until the story broke in the press. We filed out of the classroom and went on with our day. Our classes would soon be interrupted by an administrator whose job it was to let the current students in on the decision.

In Autumn of the following school year, I proctored an entrance exam for prospective male and female students. The single detail I remember most from that day is the smell. The smell of women’s shampoo and lotion hovered in the science lab. Honestly, it was disorienting. You know that awkwardness you feel when you run into someone out in public, but you only know them in a single narrow context? That’s what that smell was like. It was completely foreign in a Damien classroom.

During the following summer, Madison and I were on campus to pick something up. We walked past a classroom. I popped my head in to say hello to the teacher. One of the new female students – there for summer orientation – asked “Is that your daughter?” “Yes,” I said. I told Madison to say hello. “Hi!” she said. She waved. A high-pitched “AWWWWWWWWWW!” broke out. That was my very first interaction with the very first female students of Damien and the class of 2016. Welcome to the new Damien, I thought to myself.

That was four years ago.

This was yesterday:

The dominant narrative which has defined the class of 2016 is its history-making status as Damien’s first co-educational graduating class. That story, while significant, obscures a greater truth: the class of 2016 will go down as one of the best classes in the history of the school. Overall, it is the finest class I have instructed in my 14 years at Damien. Their academic accomplishments speak for themselves. But it’s that other thing – the way they’ve helped to transform the campus for the better – that stands out. Only 2004 and 2006 approached such heights. During their four years at the high school level, the class of 2016 set new standards for leadership, community service, and scholarship awards.

Yet these men and women will always have a special place in my heart for personal reasons. They were with me every day during the most trying time of my life.

I’ve been a wreck in various stages of disrepair since Cole and Avery were born. The class worked with me and for me rather than against me. The seniors in student government along with the English department threw me a surprise baby shower, complete with sushi and games. The two Advanced Placement English classes got me a cake (in a failed attempt to get out of a test but I suppose also) for my birthday. These are just a few of the highlights, the memories I will keep forever. There are many, many others.

Class of 2016,
You all know that I am not a believer in destiny. Still, it feels like the universe was looking out for me this year when I got lucky to have you in class. Congratulations on this great accomplishment. Thank  you so much for being a wonderful collection of personalities and for including me in your conversations, decision-making, and celebrations. It is only right that you should make history as the first graduating co-ed class in our school’s history; you all are one of the school’s very best. Watching you grow together and as individuals has been one of the most rewarding and fulfilling experiences of my professional life. Good luck in the near and distant future. Keep in touch because I’d love to hear about your ongoing conquests. You know exactly where I’ll be.

Your friend,

Phil Higa
Damien Memorial School, ’98

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