Nichols Middle School graduate and student speaker Emerson Singer addresses fellow eighth-graders and families in the ETHS auditorium during graduation ceremonies. Credit: ETHS District 202 YouTube

Almost 24 hours after Haven Middle School graduates crossed the auditorium stage at Evanston Township High School to receive their diplomas, eighth-graders at Nichols Middle School and Chute Middle School celebrated their own graduation ceremonies Thursday evening.

At the ETHS auditorium, a small string orchestra played the traditional graduation march, British composer Edward Elgar’s Pomp and Circumstance, to welcome Nichols Middle School graduates dressed in shiny red gowns for the occasion, while the eighth-graders at Chute Middle School in south Evanston donned their characteristic green as they completed their time in middle school in the Chute auditorium.

Due to capacity limitations, Chute held two ceremonies on Thursday, one at 5 and the second at 6:30 p.m. Nichols needed just one graduation for all students, thanks to the extra room at ETHS.

Like the Haven ceremony on Wednesday night, the graduations held Thursday were filled with whoops and hollers for the accomplishments of Evanston’s eighth-graders as they prepare to move on to high school in August. This week marked the first time since COVID-19 hit in March 2020 that the local middle schools were able to conduct in-person graduation ceremonies, and the students and administrators who spoke Thursday acknowledged the challenges of learning over the last three years.

“I think I speak for everyone when I say these past few years have been tumultuous at best,” said Nichols student speaker and graduate Mary Esther Ng. “In the three years since we walked into Nichols for the first time, we’ve experienced a global pandemic that completely upended our daily lives, political turmoil nearly unprecedented in our history as a nation and, more recently, senseless brutality across the country that has taken the lives of countless innocent Americans.”

Thursday’s graduation also followed the discovery of swastikas and anti-Semitic messages written on the walls of two bathrooms at Nichols, an incident that District 65 Superintendent Devon Horton announced to the community in an email Thursday night. Horton, who did not mention the new incident at the graduation, said in his letter the district is conducting an investigation in partnership with the Evanston Police Department, and the Nichols team is coordinating a reflection and dialogue to process the situation with students, according to the email.

Here is Horton’s full letter.

‘We persevered’

Ng encouraged fellow classmates to learn from the challenging experiences they have faced in hopes they might make the world a better place. She said they should advocate for justice, equity and fairness, and she expressed gratitude for the strong relationships with friends and family that helped everyone get through the last two years.

Emerson Singer, another Nichols graduate and student speaker who followed Ng Thursday evening, spoke about the same adversity faced by students that Ng discussed, but she also sprinkled in some humor that got parents and families laughing, as well.

“Of course, there were many unfortunate events that occurred over the past three years, but there was also a lot of good. We got to basically skip seventh grade, which is notoriously the most awkward year,” Singer joked. “We got to catch up on all the sleep that the public education system has deprived us of, and, most importantly, we persevered.”

Superintendent Devon Horton addressed graduating eighth graders in a short prerecorded speech. Credit: ETHS District 202 YouTube

Although District 65 Superintendent Devon Horton did not appear at any of the three middle school graduation ceremonies on Wednesday and Thursday, he offered a short prerecorded message to graduates that played at all of the ceremonies. Horton called this year’s graduating eighth-graders “our true lighthouse class” because they navigated the unprecedented waters of the pandemic and adapted to remote learning, masking and countless other challenges with perseverance over the last two years.

Nichols also recognized the recipients of two major awards: District 65’s African American Youth Achievement Award and the McDermott Award, the top Nichols award presented to two students each year. Nichols established the McDermott Award in 2008 to honor the life and dedication of math teacher Sandy McDermott, and the prize acknowledges “outstanding academics, great character and community service.”

Nichols graduates Nina-Simone Cattouse and Jeffrey Thomas won the African American Youth Achievement Award, while Cattouse and Bryce Lortie received the 2022 McDermott Award. From Chute, graduates Satthapi Miller and Spencer Obiri earned the African American Youth Achievement Award this year.

“There’s a lot of talent in this room,” Chute Principal Jim McHolland told graduates, parents, guardians and families Thursday. “We look forward to everything that they’re going to do as they move on to high school and beyond. Wherever you go, you will always be part of the Chute family.”

And at the Nichols graduation, Principal Marcus Wright offered one final, lifelong assignment to the departing students from a famous poem by Ralph Waldo Emerson: “Do not go where the path may lead, go instead where there is no path and leave a trail.”

“I challenge you to really consider the opportunity you have to make a meaningful contribution to our world,” Wright said. “Each of you possesses a gift that the world needs you to share. Your generation is called on to learn and lead.”

Duncan Agnew covers Evanston public schools, affordable housing, City Hall and more for the RoundTable. He also writes long-form investigations, features and the morning email newsletter three times a...