Graduation advice through the ages from Sun-Times columnist Mary Mitchell and family

The perspectives of this grandmother, daughter and granddaughter on what today’s graduates need to hear are different but have a similar thread.

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Fifty-three years ago, columnist Mary Mitchell graduated from Dunbar Vocational High School.


It was 53 years ago and I can still recall the excitement that surrounded my graduation from Dunbar Vocational High School.

I was the first in my family to achieve that milestone.

The celebration meant liberation from a strict upbringing based on a belief that children were seen and not heard.

I wasn’t just leaving the cloistered walls of blackness. I was entering a world dominated by people who didn’t see me, let alone respect me, and those people set the rules.

As we filed out of the auditorium, I cried like a baby just yanked from the womb.

In 1967, the world was still reeling from the civil rights protests that brought about the end of legal apartheid but did little to heal the bitterness that existed between blacks and whites.

Proof of that is playing out right now in the violent clashes across this country over the death of George Floyd, yet another black man killed by a white police officer.

What, really, do I tell the Class of 2020, whose members will be stepping into a world roiled by both disease and racial discord?

While I have achieved much success — thanks to God’s grace and mercy — one of the ironies of life is that when we are young, few of us take the lessons of our elders seriously enough to avoid life’s pitfalls.

We love Grams and Papa, but do we really listen to what they have to say?

The responsibility to equip young people now falls to my daughter Kathryn Johnson’s generation.

And if you can’t hear her, perhaps you will be able to hear the voice of my granddaughter Imani Johnson, who graduated from high school three years ago.

Our perspectives on what today’s graduates need to hear as they take their places are different, but have a similar thread.

Kathryn Johnson, Class of 1996:

I teach middle-school English at Frazier Preparatory Academy. The cancellation of in-person instruction and graduation activities due to COVID-19 has been a devastating loss for my students, especially. If the trend in North Lawndale continues, 25% of them won’t finish high school. For some, this will be their only graduation exercise.


Kathryn Johnson, Mary Mitchell’s daughter, finished graduate school at the University of Illinois at Chicago in 2018.


As I read my students’ messages expressing their anger and disappointment, I feel cheated, too. These three months were desperately needed to prepare my eighth-graders for high school, and I lectured them every day about “getting ready for next year.” More than that – there is a deep sense of personal loss. I wish that I had spent less time lecturing my students about their shortcomings and more time telling them how much I love them. So, I wrote a letter to celebrate them, as they are, and I’d like to share it.

Dear Middle School,

Y’all are ready for next year. You have grown so much and you have shown yourselves to be the committed students I had hoped for. Graduation is almost here, and I am done fussing. I will leave you with this advice:

Be you. The world will tell you that you are too loud and too angry. Don’t believe that.

It is a fact that some of you never stop talking. You refuse to be silenced, and although that is nerve-wracking, being able to talk for eight straight hours and never tire is a skill. Don’t stop reminding us of the burdens you carry — hunger, poverty, mass incarceration, and a lack of equity in education. Use your voice to call out the wrongs you see in your neighborhood and city.

Some of you are angry. You come to school mad, leave mad, and I still don’t know what you’re mad about. There is a great fight ahead. At a time when Black people are still fighting for their basic rights in our country, there is work to be done. We will need your help. As Pastor Duff, our board chair, would say, “If you see a good fight, get in it.” As your classmates would say, “Keep that same energy.”

Your generation is the future of our country. You will change our America. Please know that you do not have to do it on your own. Teachers hear your cries for justice and see your eagerness to help. Let us know what we can do to be helpful to you. We see you. We love you. We stand with you.

Imani Johnson, Class of 2017:

There is no denying 2020 has been a challenging year that feels like it’s straight out of an episode of “Black Mirror.” If someone told you at the beginning of the year there would be no graduation, prom, and your time as a high schooler was going to abruptly end, how would your perspective change? Would looking for a prom dress seem like a privilege instead of a stressor? Would a graduation rehearsal feel pointless? Would you complain about going to school events to keep a cool facade? Or would the little moments feel like the biggest blessings?


Imani Johnson, Mary Mitchell’s granddaughter, is a Class of 2017 graduate of Oak Park and River Forest High School.


If there is any piece of advice I could give to the class of 2020, it is to live in the present. Instead of always waiting for a new destination, for the weekend to come, or maybe even when life is going to return to “normal” after the pandemic, take time to reflect on what you appreciate now. You will never enjoy the next phase if you don’t value the journey it took you to get there.

It took me not living in the present to value how important it really is.

It was the first day of senior year, and within 10 minutes, it seemed like everyone was already mourning the loss of what they perceived to be the “best four years of our lives.” I couldn’t scroll through Instagram without seeing a group of friends making some variation of a sad face with the caption “Last first day!”

Meanwhile, I was already fantasizing about the life I’d have in college with new friends, freedom, and the start of a career I would fall in love with. Online, it seemed like all the people who graduated the year before were “thriving” in college per their Instagram captions.

But midway through my sophomore year of college I found myself sitting in my dorm, crying so hard on the phone my sentences muddled. The moment I heard my mom’s warm voice, all the emotions that had been bottled up came flooding out. My stress was caused by: contemplating switching my major 4 times; missing my family back home; a difficult course load; and realizing independence wasn’t nearly as fun as it looked from the outside. These were the parts of life after high school that didn’t make it to Instagram.

For a second, I wanted back the very things that seemed so dull two years ago. But what I came to realize is that I didn’t actually want that time in my life back; I just wished I had appreciated it more.

Congratulations to the Class of 2020!!!

You adapted to all the curve balls thrown at you and graduated despite the disappointments.

Mary Mitchell’s epilogue:

Truth is, the Class of 2020 has inherited a mess not of their making.

But deep inside they possess all they need to pass on a better world to their children.

They have a voice.

They are trusting us to help them find it, to raise it, to use it for the cause of justice.

Kathryn Johnson is a 1996 high school graduate, first-year public school teacher and writer.

Imani Johnson graduated from Oak Park and River Forest High School in 2017. She is currently a senior studying journalism with a focus on public relations and strategic communication at Ohio University.

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