A pandemic is underway, but that won’t stop the class of 2020. As high school seniors across Chicagoland prepare to celebrate under the strangest of circumstances, we asked 24 notable public figures — actors, musicians, comedians, directors and more — to reflect on their own high school careers and offer advice to graduates. Here’s what they told us, edited for length and clarity.
Hi Graduates! Congratulations! Bob Odenkirk here. You may know me as an actor (“Breaking Bad,””Better Call Saul”), but I actually started as a professional writer of comic short pieces “Saturday Night Live,” and I am still a writer, first. This has given me a perspective on life in our quarantine state that you might find valuable. I know you are itching to get into the work force, either as an intern or in some lowly job, but there are no jobs right now, or at least very few. Frustrating! But I want you to know that I have confidence that jobs and work will come back … after all, we’re almost all still here, people need to live and make things and buy things and experience things, and so I believe that work in your intended field will return. So, what do you do UNTIL then? Well, it’s got to be something that doesn’t cost much. How about trying anything and everything that you ever even imagined you might be interested in that does NOT fit perfectly in your chosen career? Writing? All you need is paper, pen and time. We’ve got time. Same goes for many kinds of artistic endeavor. Same goes for physical fitness. Same goes for studying something off-topic that you love. And, when it’s safer, you may even be able to travel a bit on a very low budget. But for now you can WORK ON YOURSELF. Being in better physical and mental shape will only help in whatever you do! And now there is time, the hardest commodity to get, at your disposal.
I attended four colleges, ending up with a bachelor’s degree in broadcasting from Southern Illinois University, but without a doubt, the time that most prepared me for eventual success in my field was outside of class, staring at a piece of paper, and then filling it with things that made me laugh. I wish you the best in trying many things that you will otherwise not have time to pursue.
Best of luck!
One memory I have from my senior year that I’ll never forget was our senior prank, which was dressing up as senior citizens to celebrate our final year. I went to a Catholic all-girls high school, so seeing everyone go from our typically ugly plaid skirt and polo combo to golf pants, canes and reading glasses was pretty hilarious.
I was voted most likely to be famous and most likely to be a singer — haha. I used to sing every year in the talent show so that’s probably why. I’m glad that the career path paved out. It’s very weird to look back on.
My best advice for seniors graduating in 2020 is to really listen to your heart when it comes to your future career choices. You are so young and have so little to lose at this point. At the end of the day, you can fail doing anything, (so) you may as well take the risk doing something you love. Stay strong; this will pass. I believe in each and every one of you!
I didn’t get much done because there were a lot of activities. There were senior parties and senior this and senior that. At least two to three times a day, someone would come in with a note and hand it to the teacher: “Ramsey, they need you in boys choir.” “Ramsey, they need you in mixed choir.” That was my senior year. Thank God I got pretty good grades.
I was in all the bands. I played trombone. I played tuba. I was in the marching band. I was in the concert band. I played piano in the orchestra.
His advice? Read, read, read. Take out your textbooks and your class books. And although you’ve been going through them, and you think you know everything, and you’re tired of them, and you’re glad to be a senior, pull them out. And if you’re not reading those books, stay in the habit of reading. Whatever. What is your passion? Novels or whatever you like to do. Reading is so important throughout life. And it keeps your mind alert and engaged.
The most notable thing about my senior year at Evanston Township High School was that it was the only time I did Shakespeare. I played Baptista (“a wealthy gentleman of Padua”) in “Taming of the Shrew.” When that production was over, I dropped out and started doing theater in the city. So I guess I could serve as encouragement for those who don’t care to graduate.
Here’s the thing to understand: Earlier, when I showed up at New Trier (where Shannon attended freshman and sophomore year) I was coming from Lexington, Ky., where I’d been living with my mom. So I didn’t know anyone. Stranger in a strange land. I did some pretty weird stuff, all of which backfired. I started telling people my mom passed away when she hadn’t. That got me a lot of sympathy, which I enjoyed. But it was a pretty dumb thing to do. I was 13 when I did that. Thirteen-year-old boys aren’t known for their savvy.
Look, I’m not a fount of advice. I guess the best advice is to try not to stress out too much about what’s happening right now. I have the sense things will return to normal. We got through the Spanish flu in 1918, 1919, so I gotta think we’ll get through this. Also, take advantage of the time you have to study and explore things that aren’t part of a curriculum. I always struggled with being told what to read, what to think about, what was important. You can dictate more of that yourself in a pandemic.
Johnson is a contemporary artist raised in the north and northwest suburbs and educated at Columbia College and the School of the Art Institute.
I went to Addison Trail High School my freshman and sophomore years. I was having some trouble with truancy and moved to Skokie and transferred to Niles North. I remember senior prom well. The Addison Trail prom was the same night as my prom from Niles North, at the Westin downtown, so all my friends I’d grown up with, we all went together. I went with my high school sweetheart and got to hang out with my old high school crew. We had a blast. I’m still really close with a lot of those guys. I had a Zoom call with them yesterday.
I played soccer my senior year. Because I had transitioned from one school, I wasn’t too ingrained in that community. I was an artist. I was a little different, you know? I had an art teacher my senior year. We didn’t get along, and he told me I would never be an artist. I did get a little bit of fuel from that for a while, (but) I let go of all those types of resentments now. It’s dirty gasoline — not useful.
Be patient. There are opportunities and things that you’re missing, but this is just a blip on the radar. Your life is long. You’re going to have incredible experiences, both good and bad. Be grateful — and congratulations!
Amundsen was terrific. Really diverse student population. A whole Swedish community, a Greek community, a Jewish community, everything. When I went to University of Wisconsin-Madison, I met a lot of kids who came from small towns, and a lot of them came from a culturally hermetic perspective. I just loved the Carl Sandburg-esque sense of Chicago, with all the tough ethnic neighborhoods. There was a reality to it, and I’ve been grateful to it my whole life.
I had a few spectacular teachers. The history teacher we called “Mr. Bill” was absolutely (expletive) inspiring, and stoked a certain kind of intellectual curiosity and endeavor. He was an ex-Marine, both intellectual and masculine. Made a big impression on me. I didn’t become a historian, but I really got something from that class. Also from my plane geometry class, which must’ve had something to do with the way my brain works, keeping things in order. It’s crazy. I’m 77, I think back 60 years ago, and I remember Mr. Bill as vividly as if he were standing right in front of me.
If I could time-travel and advise the 17-year-old Michael Mann? I’d probably advise him to grow up! Personally I didn’t really mature until I was 35, 40. I wasn’t a mature adult until then. I suppose I wish I had been more alert to the opportunities I had along the way. But my parents, who didn’t have any money, had my back. Always.
I was super geeky. I had my brainy, geeky theater and writing friends, who of course at the time I felt like we were some kind of underdogs. Not only are they doing really interesting things, which you could’ve predicted if you ever watched any movie about high school ever, but honestly everyone’s doing interesting things. But I was definitely sitting on the uncool side of the cafeteria with a very wonderfully strange motley crew of theater and writing kids.
I was one of those people who knew what I wanted to do early on; I was pretty hell bent on writing. I did some acting, which I think, for anyone interested in writing, is the best training ground that you can have, because you’re living in the story night after night after night. If you think about it, even your favorite books you might them two or three times, but if you’re in a play you’re going to re-read and re-live that thing 100 times. It’s understanding that story on a totally different level.
As for advice, those early years after high school are the last time in your life for experimenting with all different kinds of things that you’re either passionate about or just vaguely interested in. It’s one of the last times in your life when you might have the freedom to just go down random roads. You aren’t tied into a permanent job or having kids or whatever, so this is the time when you can make random choices, which is such a lovely thing.
Ashley Nicole Black
Every day at lunch my girlfriends and I would sit on the stairs in the drama room and either not eat lunch — because it was not cool to eat; in the ’90s and early 2000s it was not cool for girls to eat — or we’d eat the Lean Cuisines that we would bring to school: that was being a teenager in LA. We were huge drama and show choir nerds. I would always say there wasn’t a cool clique at our high school — that there wasn’t that television thing where “the jocks are so cool” — but I repeated that once to someone I went to high school with, and she said, “That’s because you were the cool kid!” So maybe I went to a high school where you could be a cool kid in show choir.
My friend Paul and I were voted “Most Dramatic,” which I choose to take as a compliment. We had a certificate program in my high school where you could major in a subject and take extra classes, so I was a musical theater major. The show I remember us doing most vividly is “Sweet Charity,” which is about being a prostitute. I think in the same year we did “Sweet Charity” and “You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown.”
Graduating seniors should be allowed to fully grieve for what they’ve lost. I imagine that grownups are going to tell them, “Oh, nobody cares about high school anyway, the second you graduate it doesn’t matter.” But they’ve lost something huge, something they’ve probably looked forward to for the last four years, if not the last 18 years. So much of our pop culture and our myths about school are tied up in the idea of prom and graduation, and we sell those things to kids super hard. You’re probably isolated at home with your family, and it would be easy to sink into the grief fully because there’s nothing else to do. But when you’re 18, that is your time to discover what kind of person you want to be. This is unique, you’re home with time on your hands, so use that time to explore what you want to do and what you want to be and to experiment. Whoever your heroes are, they’re also stuck at home, so there’s a much higher percentage now that if you tweet at them, “Hey, I want to be a dancer or a great writer like you are,” they might actually respond to you and answer your question, so use this moment.
I am the youngest of three children. I have an older brother, Bryan, and then an older sister, Kathleen. And then I had a science teacher in high school who for the entire year called me ‘Bryan.’ I thought, ‘First of all that was six years ago — and then the sex is wrong. Why wouldn’t you at least call me my sister’s name?’ He retired that year. He had just gotten sick of learning new names. Despite it all, I was not scarred and pursued a scientific degree in college.
I played with the jocks and hung out with the nerds. I played soccer and did track, and I did not play soccer well but I was fast and had endurance — versus technical ball-handling skills. I also did the debate team. One of my debate partners was Dana Perino, the former Bush press secretary who is now on Fox news. And I would do all the research, and she would do all the speaking. I kind of moved in many circles.
My kids and I, we have a joke that at this time of year everyone asks students “AAQs” — annoying adult questions. “What are you gonna do next year? What major are you going to have in college?” So I always tell my boys, “Just put up with the AAQ, make up something and the adults will leave you alone.” And I just want to assure all the graduates it is OK not to know what you’re going to do, especially at this moment in time. They will figure it out. And they should enjoy that process and not let AAQs put undue pressure on them.
I remember my senior year in high school as the happiest time I had at New Trier. I was ready to get out of my parents’ house and by then I could feel my liberation coming. Also, for the first time, I was deeply engaged in an activity at school. I’d become the editor of the high school newspaper, which was published each week. I remember Tuesday nights, when we’d deliver the “paste-ups” of each page — literally, the printed columns of type pasted onto poster board for photo offset printing — as frantic exercises that often had us driving to the printers after midnight. Usually, my girlfriend, who was also on the newspaper staff, came with me and we’d take advantage of having a solid excuse to be out past curfew.
Being editor also made me a member of a group called something like “Senior Leadership Council,” who were supposed to meet each week with the school administrators to offer students’ points of view about goings-on in the school. I remember the principal, Dr. Ralph McGee, as kind and sympathetic. The superintendent, on the other hand, was one of those grey-haired eminences who, clearly, couldn’t wait to get us out of his office.
My advice to seniors about graduating in the midst of this pandemic is to remember this strange time. With any luck, you will never go through anything like this again. Friends will hug and shake hands once more, and everyone will quickly forget that our lives were once so different. That would be a pity. The contrast between then and now should teach you some amazing lessons about the value of human contact, and our humiliating vulnerabilities as human beings. Try to remember both from time to time.
Plensa is a contemporary artist best known in Chicago for designing the Crown Fountain in Millennium Park. He graduated high school in 1973 in Barcelona, Spain.
I remember I was really unsure at the time. I was thinking a lot about being a physician. And the other one was musician. But a little before my graduation, something happened which changed my position. Picasso died in April 1973. It was a strong input for me. I always was dreaming about him. The news came from France, and I said, ‘OK, guys, finally, I will be an artist.’ I was very interested, always, in art, but my family, at least, never considered art to be something serious. I said, “Look, guys, this is my job. I will be an artist.”
The main memory is two professors who were very key to me. There was a fantastic woman, a mathematician. I was very bad at mathematics, but this woman and I became such close friends we still stay in contact. She is now in her 80s. And the other was the guy who was teaching visual art in my school, who really embraced all my dreams.
This is a key time for graduates. My advice is to really also exercise their brain and to think. It’s an incredible exploration. Thinking means to explore something we love, which is our creativity. Please try to develop not only muscles but creativity. In the world, in the future, we will need a lot of creativity.”
One of my favorite memories from high school happened my sophomore year. Whitney Young’s drama club was doing “Cyrano,” and I was playing (the title character’s) friend. My older brother Sultan (who stars on “South Side” and went to the Chicago High School for Agricultural Sciences) hadn’t seen me act and came to a show. We were chatting it up during intermission backstage when Dave Canepa, the drama director, strolled up to us very casually and shot the breeze. About a minute in he goes, “By the way, the play started (back up) five minutes ago ….” Canepa shot me a look to let me know he wasn’t kidding. I was stunned and ran out to the stage. I have the first line in the second act, so when I got to stage the other actors were angrily improving. I never missed another entrance. I miss Dave Canepa — he was a teacher I always looked forward to seeing at school. He supported the kids who loved drama and let us swing for the fences. He was passionate and dedicated. He yelled sometimes when we weren’t taking things seriously. He was a cool human. And he had a helluva sense of humor. We were lucky to have him.
I was voted president of the National Honor Society. I won by three votes! I also did intramural basketball and theater. I was often on campus past 7 p.m. — I loved it. Whitney Young at that time was a place that gave kids tons of freedom so by your senior year you were taking classes you loved, and the school would have midday sock hops and all types of madness. The past rocked!
My advice for anyone now is to realize and embrace what you can control. You can control how you spend your free time; I wish I had written a screenplay at 17. Trust me, the ideas you have now will remain some of your best. You can control how you treat your family. This is a great time to develop patience and learn to sit in stillness. If you’re lucky enough to live, life will continue to throw you drama. The better you are at self-control, the better you’ll weather those storms. Practice that now, but choose peace in your interactions. You can control whether or not you work out while you’re home. Kids should do that. Trust me, it’s a great idea to get in shape before college (where you’re eating on the meal plan) or joining the workforce (fast food lunches). Finally, you can control how you invest in yourself. Start a business or a band or make some beats or paint or draw or choreograph! Get with a friend who’s as serious as you are about success, push each other to greatness. When the world is ready for you again, you should be ready for whatever world appears.
My class, the class of January 1965, was the last mid-year graduation in the Chicago public schools. Harlan High School was located at 9652 S. Michigan Ave. My junior and senior years were spent walking six blocks to school across a huge hole in the ground. This would become the Dan Ryan Expressway. Still remember the truck firms that hauled the dirt: Palumbo, Kreig, Lindahl. They rumbled the streets of Roseland.
I was class treasurer and voted best-looking boy. Please stifle your laughter. Thank you. Later it was discovered that this was the CPS’s ugliest assemblage of males in history.
Kids, please remember the most dangerous vice is advice. So here goes. People don’t assume successful people know some magical secret. They don’t. Talent, hard work and perseverance are key ingredients, but the universe must occasionally spin in your direction. Call it luck if you must. Just be ready when it does. Too many successful people forget just how fortunate they’ve been. Winners are losers who got up and gave it one more try.
One of my favorite things I did was make short movies with my friend, Adam Siegel. We would shoot stuff on the weekends and during lunch we would bring a group of people to the AV room for little screenings.
I was voted “Most Likely to Be on Saturday Night Live and win an Oscar.” I did a lot of extracurriculars in high school: I did plays, musicals, played lacrosse football, sang in a band for little, made short videos and was friends with all those different groups of people.
Find what you love and do that as much as possible even now in incredibly difficult times. Find ways to move forward and be creative with your approach, and maybe you’ll find ways to do things you never would have thought of before.
As a senior on the varsity cross country team, I fondly remember my last home cross country meet at Atten Park. I broke away from the lead pack in the final stretch of the race to win first place. It was also “Parents Day,” so my mom and dad were both there to proudly cheer me on.
I was a two-sport athlete and three-time varsity-letter winner in cross country and track and field and an honor-roll student. As co-captain of my varsity cross-country team senior year, along with teammates and dear friends Jenny Graham, Kate Kennedy and Kerry Kagi, we made wonderful memories! A big shout-out to our dear coach, John Stacey, who taught us that “together we can.”
My advice for graduating students is go be great at something. You will undoubtedly face many challenges in the coming years, whether that’s selecting a major or choosing a career path. Just make the best decision you can and treat the subject, trade or craft you choose as if it is forever — even if it isn’t. If you enjoy what you do and apply yourself fully, doors will open.
Chicago chef Lamar Moore, known for his work at Swill Inn and Currency Exchange Cafe, graduated Truman Middle College in 1999.
My fondest memory during my senior year of high school was going on an awesome field trip to Boston where we got to go to a Boston Red Sox game. I’m a huge Sox fan — the Chicago White Sox — to be exact. I got also got to do some cooking (well, the food wasn’t that great) with my classmates. But it gave me a great start before I began my journey to culinary school.”
I played baseball, wrestled and ran track in high school. But I was also a super nerd, an introvert and didn’t really talk to people all that much. Actually, a lot of my classmates thought I was mean (ha)! I was super serious. I spent a lot of time being in my older brother’s shadow, so I couldn’t wait until my senior year to sprout on my own.
My advice is don’t grow up too fast. Protect your goals, protect your interests, and choose your friends wisely. And last but not least: Control your social media, and don’t let it control you.
I was voted “best dressed,” which was a happy surprise. I remember only being interested in wearing what I liked and not necessarily what others were wearing or what was popular. I was also voted “car most likely to be stolen,” because I drove my mom’s Mercedes convertible. Looking back, it was absolutely insane that my parents let me drive that car around — who did I think I was?
I was all over the map with my interests. The main activities I was involved in were poms — we were undefeated back in my day! — Orchesis (dance company), choir and lacrosse.
Seniors, let these uncertain times remind you of what really matters in life: Each other. No matter where your dreams take you from here, remember to always hold your loved ones close. Congratulations!
High school was the time when I discovered I wanted to be an actor. I was a junior when I tried out for the play “West Side Story” at Morton East High School in Cicero on a dare, since I loved the film so much and thought it might be fun to get cast as one of the guys. Up to that point I had only seen one play in my life and was no more interested in being an actor than having a tooth pulled. It was the audition itself that hit me like a thunderbolt to where all I wanted to do was pursue this as a career, even though I was not cast in that production. So what I did was instantly enroll into drama class my senior year, and that school year is what defined the rest of my life in pursuit of my dream career. I dabbled in other things like various sports in high school, but never excelled in any; however we did start a band to perform at high school functions, so in my senior yearbook they list Weasles 3 & 4, as if they were electives I had chosen. Bottom line, it was later in my high school life that I found the path I wanted to take and have still been on over 50 years later.
Congratulations on your graduation. You must be terrified! The world is in a panic, things are changing and what might have seemed like a certain plan just months ago is probably now filled with uncertainty. That’s amazing! This is the best lesson a young graduate could learn. Too often we tell graduates that the world is their oyster when that’s simply not true. Nothing is promised because of who your parents are, how good of a school you went to, or even how hard you work. Life is cruel, life is chaos, but life is full of opportunity. It is up to you to find your happiness, regardless of whether it makes sense to other people. Create a new lane instead of following behind what wasn’t working. This is an opportunity to shape your own reality. Believe in yourself. You are young, yet have lived through so much already. You are so strong! Have faith in yourself -more than any school, job, or government. Be positive, make money, protect your family, and enjoy your life.
Orman is a best-selling personal finance author who graduated from South Shore High School in 1969. Her latest book, “The Ultimate Retirement Guide for 50+: Winning Strategies to Make your Money Last a Lifetime,” was published in February.
There is no excuse big enough to keep you from being who you are meant to be. I was raised on the South Side of Chicago, 81st and Oglesby to be exact, and went to Horace Mann grammar school and South Shore High School. My mother was a secretary who sold Avon on the side, and my dad was sick most of the time. Financially speaking, I had far less than most of my friends and never had great grades.
My SAT scores were average. The University of Illinois rejected me the first time I applied, and I had to pay my own way to go to college. I worked two jobs seven days a week for four years. After college I lived in a van on the streets of Berkeley, California, until I landed my dream job as a waitress at the Buttercup Bakery. I waitressed for seven years making $400 a month until I was 30 years old.
So don’t ever insult yourself by thinking that you’re not smart enough; your grades aren’t good enough; you’re poor and have no money; you’ll never amount to anything, so why should you even try? Your future is in your hands, and it will be the choices that you make, the company that you keep and valuing who you are over what you have that will determine the outcome of your life. The choice is up to you. All I can tell you is that if I could do it so can you!
Rachel Barton Pine
That summer, when I was 16, I got my first full-time professional job as a member of the Grant Park Orchestra. That’s a very vivid memory for me, because I was in the orchestra working all day, playing concerts, and (during) every rehearsal break, I was studying for my exit exam.
Home schooling … made my life much more normal. I could do my violin practicing during school hours. I could (be) with my friends in the afternoon. All my electives were music, which was perfectly allowable. I made up my own categories: practice, rehearsals, read dissertations.
Her advice? Don’t confuse the concepts of schooling and learning. Sometimes they are synonymous, and sometimes they are not. Now’s the time where you could actually start with any extra time you have: What am I actually curious about? Use that freedom and flexibility to start to discover yourself and discover your world.
I had an absolute blast, but I did not enjoy the school. My oldest brothers went to Loyola and then I had three brothers who went to New Trier and had a really good time and barely graduated, so when I came along there was no way I was going to get to New Trier. But I made the most of high school, it was really a great time. I was friends with the stoners, the theater kids, the jocks. And I was a bit of a troublemaker; I enjoyed gyros at Chuck Wagon and frisbee golf at lunchtime, which was against the rules, so I pretty much had detention everyday. At our graduation ceremony, we were lined up for the procession and you kind of went out an exit door then up on the stage and got in line to get your diploma. And when I went out the exit door, four of my brothers grabbed me from behind — hands over the eyes and over the mouth — and dragged me outside as a prank and I literally punched one in the stomach and one in the face and elbowed the other and got back in line to get that diploma, because there was no way I was not getting out of Loyola that day. They thought it was going to be funny, and they were all holding their jaws afterwards.
I was captain of the football team and the lead in the school musical my senior year; I was Joe Hardy in “Damn Yankees.” I kind of peaked at 18. I did plays every year; it was the only time there were girls in the building. It was funny, one night I’d be out at an after-party for theater, dancing to the Bee
Gees with girls from Marillac (the all-girls Catholic school in Northfield), and the next day I’d be in my buddy’s car cursing that damn disco when it came on the radio. I led different lives depending on who I was with.
It’s a weird time, but find a way to make some money this summer if you can. And if you’re going to college, reach out and meet those people who are completely different than everything you’ve seen this far in your life. It’s about meeting a wide spectrum of the world, rather than the clique that you grew up with. Go out and seek the people who seem a little different and odd and artsy. Broaden your horizons.
I had an incredible teacher named Sandy Wands for English. She was an imposing figure with a booming voice and an intense scowl that could scare the crap out of you. At first I was coasting through class, not really engaging much, and I don’t think I made much of a positive impression. A few weeks later, I turned in a term paper I had actually put some effort into and as I walked out of the class, Miss Wands grabbed me firmly by the arm and said, “I read your paper. It was great, but it also made me angry. Quit selectively using your intelligence in my class. Lazy and disinterested is not a good look on you.” That one interaction changed my life.
I played soccer and volleyball, and was vice president of the student council.
His advice? First of all, let’s just acknowledge that your timing sucks. Apologies for that, but there can be silver linings. You have a real opportunity to evolve as a human being and come out on the other side much cooler. Learn how to cook, and cook well. Read “The Alchemist,” watch “The Godfather,” and listen to Miles Davis. Train your body, mind and soul. Learn how to listen twice as much as you speak. People will love you for it. Be grateful for what you do have, and be willing to work for what you don’t. Throw your vape away, it will age you — and maybe even kill you. Appreciate the people who love you; they won’t be around forever. Live most of your life outside the digital world. And remember to smile.