Written By: Liz Ronk

Ask ten people what their high school years were like, and you’ll probably get one of two answers: Best years of my life,  or, Worst years of my life. But even those who hated high school probably recall their graduation and the days around it as significant.

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.

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-year-olds 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.

Mansfield, Ohio, Senior High School graduation, 1941.

Alfred Eisenstaedt/Life Pictures/Getty Images

Mansfield, Ohio, Senior High School, 1941.

Alfred Eisenstaedt/Life Pictures/Getty Images

The last class in Economics was held outdoors on this long flight of stone steps in Middle Park.

Alfred Eisenstaedt/ Life Pictures/Getty Images

Mansfield, Ohio, Senior High School, 1941.

Alfred Eisenstaedt/ Life Pictures/Getty Images

Mansfield, Ohio, Senior High School, 1941.

Alfred Eisenstaedt/ Life Pictures/Getty Images

Patricia Ann Bancroft practiced a Class Day poem in a three-room apartment where she lived with brother and widowed mother, a schoolteacher. The following year the Bancrofts planned to double up with relatives to save money so that Pat could go to college.

Alfred Eisenstaedt/ Life Pictures/Getty Images

Mansfield, Ohio, Senior High School, 1941.

Alfred Eisenstaedt/ Life Pictures/Getty Images

Pat’s graduation presents were a suitcase, slippers, stockings, pin and a $25 check from a relative. Pat planned to use the money to buy a typewriter.

Alfred Eisenstaedt/ Life Pictures/Getty Images

Pat was tapped for the National Honor Society award for scholarship and leadership.

Alfred Eisenstaedt/ Life Pictures/Getty Images

At Class Day.

Alfred Eisenstaedt/ Life Pictures/Getty Images

At the baccalaureate service in a Lutheran church, seniors were exhorted to “render service to society.”

Alfred Eisenstaedt/ Life Pictures/Getty Images

Mansfield, Ohio, Senior High School graduation, 1941.

Alfred Eisenstaedt/ Life Pictures/Getty Images

At the top left is the school valedictorian, Julia Loraine Fishback, who earned a scholarship to Swarthmore, where she planned to study occupational therapy. Top right: Lillian Art, voted ‘Prettiest Girl in the Class’; her widowed mother worked for Mansfield’s largest industry, Westinghouse Electric, and she planned to become a secretary. The students in the lower left and right photos were unidentified.

Alfred Eisenstaedt/Life Pictures/Getty Images

Senior High School graduation, 1941.

Alfred Eisenstaedt/Life Pictures/Getty Images

Mansfield, Ohio, Senior High School graduation, 1941.

Alfred Eisenstaedt/ Life Pictures/Getty Images

Senior High School graduation, 1941.

Alfred Eisenstaedt/ Life Pictures/Getty Images

Mansfield, Ohio, Senior High School graduation, 1941.

Alfred Eisenstaedt/ Life Pictures/Getty Images

Mansfield, Ohio, Senior High School graduation, 1941.

Alfred Eisenstaedt/ Life Pictures/Getty Images

Jim Gorman’s graduation present was this second-hand Ford, piled high with friends in front of high school. Jim’s father was a well-to-do manufacturer, and Jim was planning to attend Lehigh University.

Alfred Eisenstaedt/ Life Pictures/Getty Images

Mansfield, Ohio, Senior High School, 1941.

Alfred Eisenstaedt/ Life Pictures/Getty Images

This hayride and class picnic took place at novelist Louis Bromfield’s farm three days before commencement. The seniors contributed 25 cents each toward the cost of food. Later in the evening, Bromfield threw them a barn dance.

Alfred Eisenstaedt/ Life Pictures/Getty Images

Mansfield, Ohio, Senior High School, 1941.

Alfred Eisenstaedt/ Life Pictures/Getty Images

At the class dinner and dance the next night, the kids dressed up in their formalwear. Reportedly, no one spiked the punch.

Alfred Eisenstaedt/Life Pictures/Getty Images

Mansfield, Ohio, Senior High School graduation, 1941.

Alfred Eisenstaedt/Life Pictures/Getty Images

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