Tom West: Graduates, treasure your classmates while you can

Duluth will be offering the world another crop of 1,000 formally educated young adults this week. My advice to them all is simple. After each of you has gone through the line and gotten your diploma, turn and hug, or at least shake hands with, th...

Duluth will be offering the world another crop of 1,000 formally educated young adults this week. My advice to them all is simple. After each of you has gone through the line and gotten your diploma, turn and hug, or at least shake hands with, the classmates on either side of you. You may never see them again.

That's never as in ever.

As it happens, I will be heading to a class reunion this summer, celebrating a round-number of my own commencement. I graduated with a class of about 134 kids. Of those 134, I have probably not seen 30 of them from that day to this.

On the night I graduated, wise parents of one of my classmates threw an all-night party for the graduates. I took my prom date to the party. When dawn came, the party was still going, but my prom date and I had parted company.

That was only the first of many changes in the relationships that I had with my classmates. As the summer progressed, most of us were still around, but some had already joined the military, some headed off to summer school and some immediately went to work full-time. By fall, we were mostly gone.


A few years later, I learned that two kinds of people exist. Some people see the stages of their lives as compartments, sealed off and put away when they are over. When childhood ends, they go on to new friends, new interests and a new life. When they retire, I suspect they don't go back to the office or the factory either. What's over is over.

The other kind sees their life as one long continuum, and recognizes that in some way, great or small, each step led to the next. They remain curious about the old neighborhood, old friends, old hometowns even as they move on to new friends and interests. I confess to being part of the latter group.

After these many years, I can still say that with few exceptions I'd trust my high school classmates with my life. When you grow up together, sweat over the same algebra tests, go to the same parties, take the same co-ed dancing lessons we had to take, you get to know those classmates far better than almost all of the adults you will encounter later.

I went to college 1,400 miles from my hometown. On one of the first days I was there -- before classes had started -- the kid across the hall and I were playing catch with a tennis ball in the dormitory hallway (one of those mindless activities kids use to kill time). Since it was early September, it was still warm, and I was standing with my back to an open window. The other kid threw the ball, I missed it and the ball sailed out that fourth-floor window.

A couple of other freshmen were walking by and one of them grabbed the ball. I yelled down to him to throw the ball back up. He yelled an obscenity and took off down the block. Being a little immature, I ran down the stairs and gave chase. A couple of blocks later when I caught up to him and his friend, I calmly asked for the ball back. What I got was a lot of screaming and anger. I stood my ground and no blows were struck, but eventually the kid said, "If you want the ball so bleeping bad, go get it," and with that he threw it as far as he could in the opposite direction. End of incident.

Obviously, today it would be stupid to chase after the ball, particularly being outnumbered. Today, I'd worry about being mugged or worse. A tennis ball isn't worth it. But those were simpler times, and I still wonder occasionally what brought on that kid's response. I learned later that they were both from New York City; maybe that's how New Yorkers act.

All I know for certain is that none of my high school classmates would have reacted that way. They would have either tried to toss it back to me or, if they weren't athletic enough, they would have told me to come down and get it before they broke a window. Then I would have gone down, and we would have talked for five minutes about what they were doing that weekend.

Whenever I return to my hometown, that's still the response. The warmness that comes from growing up together still exists.


Since I graduated, I've also learned that the kids you expect to be the big successes are not always the ones who make it., and your close friends then are not necessarily your close friends later. One classmate hit it big in insurance in Albuquerque. He was quiet as a mouse in class and has never come back for a reunion. Another, known back then mostly for driving fast and other lapses of judgment, did quite well in construction in Colorado. A third classmate, with whom I was particularly close, became a CPA, then went to work for a lighting company. Eventually the company was taken over, he cashed in his stock options and was set for life. However, I see him only rarely, usually at reunions. A classmate who started on the basketball team with me moved to the Twin Cities, and I haven't seen him since two years after we graduated.

Close or not, I still trust those classmates like no one other than my family. Thus, my advice to the Class of 2005 is to treasure your fellow graduates. You are unlikely to find anyone whom you can trust more than the people with whom you grew up, and they will soon scatter to the ends of the Earth. Appreciate them all in the few remaining days that you can.

Tom West is the editor and publisher of the Budgeteer News. He may be reached by telephone at 723-1207 or by e-mail at .

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