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Our eldest grandchild will be graduated from high school this weekend. Hurray for her!

She is not the first in our family to reach this milestone. The occasion made me think about who might have been our earliest high school graduate.

It was not me. I graduated at a time when nearly everyone did, and so did my parents.

My grandparents were a different matter, and only one of them completed high school:

  1. Martha Mattila (1906-1977). Martha was our first high school graduate. The child of Finnish immigrants who settled in Hibbing, MN, she finished high school, probably in 1924 or 1925. She then went on for two years of college, studying elementary education. She taught school off and on throughout her adult life in Minnesota, Montana, Wyoming, and South Dakota.
  2. Bjarne Bentsen (1906-1986). He finished the 8th grade at the country school near his parents’ farm in Montana. Because the high school was too far away, he pursued additional education by taking a correspondence course in electrical engineering. After a stint as a policeman, he became an electrician.
  3. Grace Riddle (1896-1976). Grace finished the 8th grade in her rural Nebraska community. I have her graduation certificate.
  4. Owen Herbert Reed (1896-1935). Herbert’s parents divorced when he was just 8 years old. Cousins tell me that schooling ended for the Reed children at that time, and all were put out to work. He did farm labor before becoming a railroad freight agent and later a truck driver.

In my family, then, my Finnish grandmother had the first high school diploma. This does not surprise me. The Nordic people valued education. Their societies were literate very early because they felt everyone should be able to read the Bible. They built community schools as soon as they could after they arrived in America.

My granddaughter does not know all of this about my family. Does she realize that as recently as 100 years ago, many young people did not attend high school? Graduation is routine for her, something everyone does.

In two days, she will walk across the stage in her cap and gown. Due to the current pandemic, I will not be there to watch her receive her diploma. At home, I will celebrate the day with gladness that she has an opportunity that those before her did not.

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