Classmates and teachers we have known are like chapters in a big book of life we carry. On some of the pages are interactions or relationships we might have had with any of them: a hug, a smile, a stern look, laughter, tears, winning ways, some losses, love and breakups, friends, foes, mentors and icons. Like chalk pressed down on a blackboard or on a sidewalk where hopscotch and marble dreams still run rampant, the intent can never be erased. The mark made by hand remains meaningful, like that of a classmate or a teacher. And with that big book, we can open it and go back anytime, turning pages, remembering everyone, and begin again.
The other day I received word that a classmate of mine had passed away. The news arrived in an email tucked within all the other emails of that morning. The message came from a website started by someone so high school classmates could stay in touch. I didn’t remember this classmate of mine. We went to the same school for three years, ate lunch in the cafeteria, walked the hallways, and yet I still didn’t know him. In my yearbook I found his picture and was sadly embarrassed, and I know why.
My high school graduating class of 700 students was from a school that is one of four high schools in the Pennsylvania city where I was born and raised. I can still see its massive building, its main entrance with six coliseum-like columns and the large clock that sits atop. Beyond the columns, inside were the inner-workings of hierarchies and systems that remain mysterious. Anyone could easily get lost within the physical and emotional constraints of it all. And yet it all worked, as both students and teachers went about doing what everyone did then to get through those long days.
In retrospect, those days, let alone the years, were not long at all. Time flew by, and today (some two score and four years since graduating high school) I wish I could have it all back. In the midst of us trying to get to the finish line, there were things and people we missed along the way. To once again walk the hallways, bang my locker closed just one more time, and even, perhaps, say hello to this classmate and others would be a gift.
Where I live now, many are mourning the recent passing of a teacher and a student. Gone much too soon, the words expressed by their families, friends, fellow teachers, students and classmates immediately cause a pang of regret in me. I did not know this teacher or student, and now wish I had. A teacher with his red plaid persona, always a smile, always ready to lift one’s spirit in and out of the classroom; a student who was fond of the color blue and had a heart of gold in words and deeds. They are both a testament to what we all hope to harbor inside us and eventually leave behind as a legacy.
In times of need we all had classmates and teachers we would go to. Some classmates remain lifelong friends. We each had teachers that still make us smile and, admittedly, some who still make us cringe when we think of them. Whether it be a life lesson that sprung out of a conversation, a memorable phrase repeated over and over again, an unusual habit or tick, maybe even a hug, they each made a difference.
My classmate’s passing ignited memories in me of school days and of missed opportunities. Ringing bells and pledges, that castle named Jefferson Elementary and its playground, junior-high, South Mountain green and white, dances, hallway gossip, festooned lockers that were always leaned on, sports and coaches, laughter, heartache, sneakers squealing on gym floors, high school, canary yellow and blue, letter jackets, Friday night lights, prom, heroes and legends, classmates and teachers, their names I keep to myself and close to my heart.
We all have known people that touched our life, if but for a moment, helping us become who we are today. And there are others we never had the chance to know. Yet, they too, silently, were there and are part of that big book we carry around today. For all of this, I thank that classmate, whose name arrived tethered to wondrous memories, reminding me of all my classmates and teachers from long ago. I am forever thankful to all of them, for their patience, friendship and compassion.
So, to the student that now sits at my desk in homeroom or maybe even second period chemistry, which I hated: Take it all in and slow it all down. Look left and right, see the people now sharing this class with you, and try to know each of them. Hear the teacher and realize they are committed to and care about you today and most assuredly about your tomorrow. Understand time is swift, and regrets always lie in wait. Today is not about regrets; it is about you, your classmates and teachers. Cherish them now, and most of all enjoy this ride — it’s a quick one.
© 2020 RJ Heller : Originally published in The Quoddy Tides on February 14