I remember my high school graduation like it was yesterday. And if that sounds like the beginning of an old fogey guy reminiscing on years bygone, well, just let me have my moment.
Because on this day, 25 years ago, I graduated from high school back in my hometown of Omaha, Nebraska. I attended a school called Creighton Preparatory School (Creighton Prep for short). If any of you are familiar with Omaha’s Creighton University, just think of Creighton Prep as CU’s little brother.
In hindsight, my time in high school was the best, most foundational part of my education. It was there where I began to find my voice as a writer, and it was also there where I began to understand the part I wanted to play in impacting our society.
I found my love for journalism there in the hallowed halls of Creighton Prep.
Coming into my senior year of high school, I was one of those kids who had absolutely no clue of what I wanted to major in. Some of that was my fault, though. I’m not too ashamed to admit. I spent my first two years at Creighton Prep purposefully being a difficult student, sort of as my way of protest because I didn’t want to be there.
Prep was an all boys, Catholic/Jesuit institution. Predominantly white — I was one of just three Black kids in my graduating class of about 300. For me, it was discomfort personified. And I spent my freshman and sophomore years silently seething at my parents’ willfulness to keep me there against my will.
My mother, one who was never short on wit or intelligence, one day decided to let me know that she knew what I was trying to do.
Toward the end of my sophomore year as she drove me to class, she said to me: “I know you’re doing your best to sabotage your stay here at Creighton Prep, hoping I’ll let you leave and go to those other schools with your little friends. But I’m telling you — keep playing around all you want. You’ll be the first 30-year old to ever graduate high school.”
In short, her message was, “Get it together, because you’re not going anywhere.”
I got the message.
During my junior and senior years, I turned my high school life around and started consistently showing flashes of what my school guidance counselors always said was a “brilliantly gifted and stubborn student.” I was starting to allow the gifted side to speak louder than my stubborn side.
I was a senior looking for an easy “A” elective class when I discovered my love for journalism.
“Take Mrs. Stickel’s journalism class,” one of my classmates said. “It’s easy. You’ll love it.”
He was right. It was easy, and I did love it. But probably not for the reasons he assumed. It was easy because I loved to write and I loved the art and idea of storytelling. And I loved it because, through this class, I finally found my niche.
As we got to the end of the semester, I asked my teacher: “Hey, is this something I can major in in college?” She chuckled and said, “Of course.” And I was set.
When I look back on my time in high school, I admit that I often regret those first two years. If I would’ve buckled down, accepted my fate and applied myself the way everyone knew I could for all four years, there’s no telling where I could’ve been and what I could’ve done.
Still, things have turned out pretty nicely for me despite my early years of high school futility. But looking back on it all, I wish I’d have known then what I know now — that high school was truly the time to discover a lot about yourself foundationally.
Yes, college is where many students get to launch out and spread their wings of independence, but for me — and many others whom I’ve chatted with over the years — it was high school where I truly began to find myself as a young man, as a thinker, as a worker.
High school was where I truly began to learn about the perils of the world I’d soon be striking out into as an adult. High school taught me the necessity of becoming comfortable with being uncomfortable. High school is the first place where I personally felt the heft and weight of racism. Ironically, it’s also the first place where I truly learned the balance — that while racism exists and should be properly addressed and dealt with, there are also lots of people who look, live and act differently than me who can become friends and allies with me in this world.
High school taught me that it’s okay to be different. That it’s okay to not be “the cool kid.” High school showed me how sweet the feeling of accomplishment is, especially when what you’re accomplishing was hard.
High school was difficult for me because, later in life I would discover that I went through my entire academic career battling undiagnosed and untreated attention deficit disorder. And that explained a lot of struggles I had as a student. While I was undeniably intelligent and more than equipped to handle the rigor of my class work, I would have these mental blocks that made it hard to concentrate and follow through.
I got called “scatterbrained” and “lazy” a lot. Just another unmotivated, hard headed teen. And while I had moments like that for sure, I realized that it wasn’t all that. Yet, I found my way through. I achieved. I accomplished.
I remember my high school graduation day. It was a grand affair in Omaha’s Orpheum Theater. When I grabbed my diploma, I did a Michael Jordan/Kobe Bryant fist pump as I walked across the stage. At the time, I was just glad to be done with high school. But little did I realize then, how well-equipped I was for the real world, even before hitting college.
So whenever graduation time comes around, I always look upon each year’s high school graduation class with pride. I don’t know most of the kids graduating and they don’t know me. But I’ve been where they are, and if I could tell them a few things about what they’re about to accomplish, I’d simply say this:
Cherish this day. High school graduation is one of your first major accomplishments of your young life. It’s something worth celebrating. For you, it means you’ve made it through childhood and are ready to soiree into adulthood, pretty well equipped to start making a real difference in the world beyond your school building.
For your families, it brings hope. Excuse them for living a bit vicariously through you. I remember my late father and his pride at seeing his son graduate high school. Part of that pride resided in the fact that he never did. Growing up in Jim Crow Mississippi, he lived in a much different time.
My father was one of nine children to my grandparents, and he left school around the seventh or eighth grade, not because he was delinquent, but because his family needed his help on the farm. My dad did so much to ensure that I’d get the education he never had the chance to get, despite his desire for it. So, yeah, he celebrated me as if I were him.
And your family will too. Let them. This moment is a big deal.
Next, I’d say to make sure you take every lesson learned and be ready to apply it immediately upon entering your next chapter. And I’m not just talking about classroom lessons. I’m talking about all the “people” lessons you learned. Part of high school for me was learning to work with people whom I liked and didn’t particularly care for in order to accomplish a goal.
Looking back, I may not remember much about geometry or physical science class. But I do remember the interpersonal skills I learned. I do remember having to navigate my way through the time I was called the “n” word by a classmate, and felt powerless to do much about it.
I remember having to take the low grade for a class project, despite me doing my part, because someone else didn’t — one of my first lessons on how each individual in our society has an impact on the next person. We don’t live in silos.
These are the high school “classes” that prepared me most for life. I didn’t know that until I got into “life,” though. I suspect it’ll be the same for you.
Finally, take life seriously, but don’t take yourself too seriously in life. One day, the Class of 2023, among others, will take their place front-and-center in the leading and governing of our nation and world. By then, I’ll likely be an old man in my 70s or 80s. But just know this: You all have next. Continue to live and grown and learn in such a way that will prepare you well to give us a better world than the one we have now.
But also, don’t stress yourself out about it so much that you fail to enjoy everything this big, beautiful world has to offer.
To the Class of 2023, I say congratulations to you! Next week, our staff at The Covington News will take pride in covering the festivities, but I, personally, will be whispering a little prayer for each of you who will walk across that stage. My prayer will be that you continue to grow, continue to prosper and stand tall on the lessons these first 17 or 18 years of your life have taught you.
And, by all means, you have our permission to go and change the world.
Gabriel Stovall is the Publisher and Editor of The Covington News. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.