I just celebrated the 60th anniversary of our graduation with a couple dozen of my high school classmates, and it has made me want to say something to those of you who are brand new high school graduates. This is something I told my own children when they ended their high school years, and the same thoughts that I handed down to my grandchildren on those occasions.
Never, in your life, will you ever have people who know you like those kids you went through school with. Those people you grew up with at the same time and in the same place. Even if they weren’t particularly friends of yours, you will forever have those years in common and nobody else who comes into your life later will have shared them with you.
I had classmates who couldn’t wait to get out of our little south-central Iowa town and get on to the greater world where things were more happening. People who wanted to escape the mediocre existence of our quiet, traditional, low-key lives. People embarrassed by their ancestors, backgrounds or their own actions during those short eighteen years. I understand that those things could have loomed larger than life then– after all, we’d done little that seemed more significant. But, we were only eighteen– what could we have possibly accomplished during that time that was more impressive?
We’d gone off in different directions after graduations. There were about six couples who married classmates and most of them stayed in or near our hometown. Not too many of us went off to college right away. Several of the boys entered the military, to come back a few years later and continue their educations. We had a lot of what were called late bloomers, those students without the impetus, talent, drive or means to attend college right away but who did so afterward.
During our senior year, we’d elected a more or less permanent class president from among the few who seemed likely to stay in our community for the foreseeable future. And we’d resolved to have a class reunion every five years for as long as there were any of us able to organize or attend such an event. I admit that, even though the first few reunions were fairly well attended, they weren’t particularly successful. Sure, we enjoyed the chance to see our best friends again, but old sweethearts and old rivals made for some uneasy moments. There was a lot of “can you top this” with exaggerated accounts of the new job, the new house, the super-human exploits, unbelievable good luck, talented offspring, and impossible opportunities. For a time, we secretly relished accounts of failed marriages, financial disasters and tragic deaths. Somewhere along the line, most of us faced similar situations and developed a lot more empathy and compassion and we actually began to genuinely care about each other again.
Some of the closest old surviving friendships tried to start a Round Robin, where a letter would be passed from classmate to classmate and added to at each stop. This failed before the first circuit when addresses were changed without notice (we did move around a lot in those early days) and others simply didn’t want to bother.
By our twenty-five year anniversary, we were starting to make a real effort to keep in touch with each other, and it was about that time that the idea arose to establish an annual newsletter. This idea got off to a rocky start, but the financial help of a couple classmates who wanted to keep it going and the determination of a couple more who were relentless about nagging everybody to participate, it did became a valued tradition. Even now, with the ease of keeping in touch through the Internet, classmates seem to treasure the newsletter that they can hold in their hands, tuck in a drawer, read and reread. It contains, gossip, photos, accounts of achievements, address changes, grandchildren and great-grandchildren, dream vacations– the things that make up our lives.
Classmates who have been divorced or widowed have found comfort, companionship, even new marriages from among this group of people we have known for so long and who know us so well.
Even if you go off to exotic climes and think you’ve escaped that fourth grade bully or the memory of the girl who broke your heart in seventh grade, don’t think your attachment to your hometown has been severed. It can never be totally cut from your life. Somewhere out there, is a whole yearbook full of the people who’ve known you since you wet your pants in kindergarten, and who’ve cared about you since you won that sixth grade track meet or sang in the swing choir. And if you fail to keep in touch with them, you’ll be throwing away a very valuable part of your life.