(CNN) — Across the US, graduating seniors are hearing plenty of well-worn advice from family, friends and even celebrities, whose platitudes might fall flat in — what appear to be — unprecedented times.
But there have been challenging times before.
Nothing can stop you
Today’s coronavirus pandemic reminds 93-year-old Billie Shelley of when she finished elementary school in Dillon, South Carolina.
“My grammar school graduation was canceled because of the polio epidemic,” Shelley told CNN. “It was kind of like things now. You couldn’t go to the picture show, to the church or to the school. You just stayed home.”
Recent news reports on the ventilator shortage are similar to the panic Shelley remembers over iron lungs.
“There was only one iron lung in our county, and they didn’t have enough iron lungs for the people who needed them,” Shelley said. “Polio was very contagious we understood, and everyone was afraid. There was nothing you could do.”
Shelley said she found strength through her father.
“It was scary, but I was a tough little girl. My perseverance I guess came from my dad. He was tough and he taught me to be tough.”
A few years later, her high school graduation was canceled when a blackout went into effect. World War II was underway, and there was a threat that airplanes would bomb the area.
“I put on my cap and gown, and I went to the high school and when I got to the school grounds everyone was leaving, and someone told me there was a bomb threat, that airplanes were going to fly over and they didn’t want the lights shining.” Shelley said. “I ran home as fast as I could because that was my protection. It was pitch dark, there was no light anywhere.”
The blackouts and the war made life challenging, but Shelley rose to the occasion. The teenager became a volunteer spotter, and would spend Sundays on top of the local department store.
“All you had was a telephone, binoculars, and a big chart with pictures of the airplanes underneath so when you looked up you could identify them.”
Shelley took business classes and achieved her dreams of a career, landing a job with Western Union. She married a year after high school, before her husband was drafted into the war.
Thinking back on her life filled with career, marriage, children and grandchildren, Shelley said she never thought about stopping or changing course.
“You just have to keep on keeping on,” Shelley said. “My advice to the graduates now: You don’t know what the future is going to hold or what it is going to bring, but you have to have a prayer or a vision in your mind of what you want to achieve and go for it. Keep trying.”
Share the challenge
A generation after Shelley’s upbringing, the Civil Rights Movement forced our country to grapple with who we were and who we would become.
For students like Ernest Green, it was hard to dream about the future when there was a fight over what he currently was allowed to do.
In 1957, Green was one of nine black students trying to attend Little Rock Central High School in Arkansas.
“The governor called out the national guard to bar our entrance, and it took three weeks after school officially opened for us to finally get in,” Green, now 78, told CNN. “I was the only senior of the nine, and I was unsure if I would be able to graduate.”
Then-President Dwight Eisenhower sent Army troops to escort the Little Rock Nine through the angry mob and into the school. Green said the nine students relied on each other for support.
“We supported each other, and we would not have made it through the school day alone,” Green said. “And we got a great deal of support from people around the world.”
In 1958, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. came to see Green receive his diploma. He was the first African American graduate of the school.
“The Little Rock experience has been one that has given me great contact and relationships with so many,” Green said. “And so much of that started just by sharing.”
At reunions for the class of 1958, Green connected with classmates by discussing their shared experience — bonds made possible by opening up.
“I would tell today’s graduates that even if they feel the world is closing in on them, don’t go it alone,” Green suggests. “Have the courage to reach out and bring new people into your circle of conversation. You would be surprised at how many people will connect with you, and by being together we will overcome this.”
Crisis reveals character
In the 1960s, teens like Walter Nicklin graduated into a world of uncertainty. His high school years were marked by the Bay of Pigs invasion and the Cuba Missile Crisis, when “duck and cover” drills brought the specter of nuclear attack into the classrooms.
“Our school was in Alexandria (Virginia), and I remember looking across the football field where you could see the peak of the Washington Monument off in the distance,” Nicklin told CNN. “My friends and I would wonder if we would see a mushroom cloud there, and my girlfriend and I had a plan to escape to the caverns in the Shenandoah valley if the bombs began to fall.”
After Nicklin graduated high school in 1963, he headed off to college. The optimism of his freshman class shattered with the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. Then came the shadow of the Vietnam War, which darkened the paths to many job prospects.
“For us it defined our last years of college, because you had to figure out how to address it,” Nicklin, now 75, said. “Either you finish school and get drafted, or you steer your degree into careers like teaching or perhaps graduate school to get a deferment. So the question became ‘do you avoid it or accept it?’ I remember going home and thinking about it, and thought that being a draft dodger would color my character the rest of my life.”
Nicklin graduated college in 1967 and was drafted into the Army. He later chronicled this decision in a New York TImes Op-ed marking the 50th anniversary of his graduating class.
Thinking back on those times, Nicklin relates to the feeling of powerlessness this year’s graduates are feeling, and offered this advice:
“Just like today, you have to soldier through this time because there is not a lot you can do to change things. But you can build your own character and be true to yourself,” Nicklin said. “You need to be resilient and courageous. That is not being passive or resigned to your fate. That is rising to meet it.”
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