Ask ten people what their high school years were like, and you’ll probably get two answers, split right down the middle: Best years of my life, five will say. Worst years of my life, five others will vow.
But even those who absolutely hated high school and could not wait to get out — you know who you are — probably recall graduation itself as a pretty significant moment: either because one crucial phase of life was so obviously ending while another was about to begin, or because it meant they could finally leave what they saw as a stultifying, dead-end, backwater hometown.
(Note to the latter: In about 20 years, most of you will wish you’d never left.)
In 1941, LIFE magazine paid tribute to the rite of spring in a series of photographs that the great Alfred Eisenstaedt made that year at and around graduation in the town of Mansfield, in north-central Ohio. More than seven decades later, Eisenstaedt’s warm, empathetic pictures convey the strangely mixed emotions that will be familiar to anyone who’s ever donned a cap and gown and walked across a stage to shake hands and receive a diploma: anxiety, pride, relief, excitement and, for most of us, not a little melancholy. This is, after all, the real and true end of something, even as it’s the beginning of something wholly new and (if done right) something far bigger than what came before.
As LIFE put it in the magazine’s June 30, 1941, issue — less than six months, it’s worth noting, before Pearl Harbor and America’s sudden entry into World War II:
In the momentary dignity of caps and gowns, the 17-and-18-yera-olds [in these pictures] are going through one of the most exciting periods of their lives. This June, Mansfield, Ohio, Senior High School graduated 283 of the year’s total of some 1,300,000 U.S. high-school graduates.
Mansfield graduates began their sad leave-taking on Class Day, listening to their class song, class poem, and class “will.” Their officers sat stiffly before a backdrop representing the graduation theme: the “Friendship,” an imaginary superliner in which graduates were supposed top take off into the future. Later in the week came a baccalaureate service, a class picnic, a formal dinner and dance, finally the climactic event of the commencement. In the outdoor stadium proud parents looked on nostalgically while the new graduates switched their tassels of their mortarboards from left to right, sign for over half the class that their formal education was finished.
To Mansfield this was only another commencement, in spite of the lengthening shadow of war. Though a girl’s class poem had sympathized with “our ill-starred cousins” in England and given thanks for “our native land,” a poll showed that only 9.2 percent of the class believed that the U.S. should fight in the war. If on its outcome depended the survival of their system of free public education in the pleasant security of central Ohio, Mansfield’s seniors were only aware that, in their own slang, graduation had been “superslubgupious,” or in other words, wonderful.