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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: