CHICAGO — They didn’t get to walk across the stage, but Chicago’s high school seniors got a virtual extravaganza: the first ever all-city online graduation and impassioned pep talks from Oprah, local politicians, and celebrities.
Under the banner of “Graduation 2020: For Chicago. By Chicago,” Sunday’s hourlong, slickly produced virtual ceremony celebrated the city’s 35,000-strong senior class after a tumultuous spring — and before its members head out into a world gripped by a pandemic and a global reckoning over racism.
Though somber at times, the event sought to strike an upbeat, defiant tone, sending off a group of teens forced to prove their mettle in the final stretch of their high school careers.
Oprah Winfrey, the media powerhouse and former Chicago resident, gave a commencement address that called on graduates to train their tenacity on a troubled world.
“Pick a problem — any problem,” she told them. “The list is long. We need your commitment.”
The event took place just as some new Chicago graduates and others rallied in front of Hyde Park Academy and marched to call on the school district to pull police officers out of its schools.
The event reflected the socially distant moment in which seniors are wrapping up their time in high school. Katie Kadan, a former contestant on “The Voice,” belted out the national anthem in an empty Soldier Field, together with a group of students standing more than 6 feet apart.
Miguel Cervantes, an actor from the musical “Hamilton,” emceed the event from an empty theater stage. The Dunbar High School marching band, its members wearing face masks, played a rousing number, which echoed in the school’s empty hallways.
A lineup of movers and shakers— from Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker to award-winning rapper Common — praised graduates and sought to reframe the losses of this spring as an invaluable collection of life lessons.
“You’ll have some interesting stories to tell your children and grandchildren about that year you graduated when everybody stayed home,” Pritzker said.
A spokeswoman in Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s office, which planned the event, said philanthropic contributions fully covered the cost of putting it on.
During the ceremony, Lightfoot quoted former President John F. Kennedy’s “Ask not what your country can do for you …” inaugural address and invited graduates to join her in reimagining the city for the year 2030.
She praised their resilience for making it to graduation during an unprecedented time, and for taking part in peaceful protests over George Floyd’s killing and in cleanup efforts in neighborhoods affected by looting.
“How do you want to matter, and how do you want to count?” Lightfoot asked seniors, inviting them to send her their ideas for a better Chicago to firstname.lastname@example.org.
The event also featured sound bites from the graduating seniors.
They mourned the missed time with classmates, the canceled senior trips and swim meets and, of course, those long-awaited walks across the stage at graduation. They spoke of their ambitions to become urban planners, nurses, soldiers, computer scientists, U.S. presidents and millionaires.
Highlighting the ceremony, eight of the city’s valedictorians delivered a jointly written speech that captured the ways in a senior year full of turmoil will shape their worldview.
“We are giants in the bodies of teenagers,” they said. “We are a part of history.”
In her speech, Oprah focused on the legacy of slavery and racism the country was forced to confront in the wake of Floyd’s killing. She told graduates they have already made their voices heard and have a key part to play in moving the conversation forward. She urged them to vote — and give back to their communities in any way they can.
She recognized 17-year-old Darnella Frazier, the Minneapolis teen who recorded George Floyd’s killing and “dared to keep filming.”
“The lesson is right there in front of you: Don’t give up on the truth,” she said. “It’s worth fighting for.”
Chalkbeat is a nonprofit news site covering educational change in public schools.