The way things were

Mrs. Weeks's second-grade class, 1990-91: The author is at the top left; Randy and Evan are at center in the first row.

Evan, Jesse, and Randy, 31 years hence.

Goodbye dear friends,
it’s time to be moving along.
Goodbye and so long, we’ll meet again—
but now we’ll be drifting along.

Dear Graduates of the Class of 2022:

It’s likely you kept right on swiping, scrolling, or snapping without a second thought upon encountering one of the internet’s many anonymous memes. But for folks of a certain age — the ones who recall their own high school graduations as though they were last week — this particular anonymous quote is arresting:

“At some point in your childhood, you and your friends went outside to play together for the last time, and nobody knew it.”

Life’s truest parables have no identifiable author, as their wisdom is so self-evidently universal. Pearls like these cause a quick catch in the throat, a nod of the head in knowing resignation, but ultimately elicit no more than a passing regard as those folks of a certain age keep right on keeping on, having long ago accepted that there’s no way back to the way things were.

So take a moment, Class of 2022. Because this moment — the one you’re in right now — is “the way things are.” Yet in just a few months, it’ll begin metamorphosing into an entirely new temporal creature that you’ll reference, contrast, recollect, and unwittingly idealize until your end of days. Soon, this moment — the one capping the end of your high school career — will emerge like a chrysalis from the cocoon of late adolescence to spread its sepia wings as “the way things were.” And you’ll never find anything like it again.

By way of guidance as you embark on adulthood’s long slog, here are a few more lyrics from the hit song “Good-bye” off of 1975’s debut banger “We All Live Together, Vol. 1” by children’s music duo Greg and Steve:

Good luck and keep strong. 
We hope to see you soon.
Until we meet again,
we’ve gotta be moving along.

What just happened? From what Rip Van Winkle-grade coma did I just awake? A minute ago, I was a high school senior strutting ’cross the stage with my diploma, yet now my doctor’s telling me I should emotionally prepare for annual prostate exams? What’s become of the past 21 years, all of which I can pretty comprehensively reduce to 10 words (to wit, “I went to school, got a job, bought a house”)?

I can’t answer these questions; I know only that I move slower as the years move faster. But I can offer a lifehack to the Class of 2022.

First, some background:

This past May, I was sipping whiskey in an old tractor barn on the farm just up the road from where I grew up. The whiskey was produced by a company I own along with several buddies from childhood; with me that night were the farm’s fourth-generation owner and the guy who’s leading our sales effort — two fellow graduates of Voorheesville’s Class of 2001.

As the three of us surveyed our company’s forthcoming grain needs and plotted the planting season, someone casually wondered whether we’d ever been in the same elementary school class together. We began ticking off the roster of our past teachers, and quickly determined that yes, we’d jointly spent second grade under the tutelage of Mrs. Corinne Weeks.

So began a weeklong scramble to find that ancient class photograph. A search through our albums and archives — along with a dozen calls to past classmates, the school district, and the local library — proved fruitless... until I was directed to Mrs. Weeks herself. She answered my phone call with a voice I’d not heard in 30 years.

“Yes, I’m pretty sure I have it,” she said, when I asked after the class picture with breath bated and fingers crossed tight enough to cut off circulation. Of course she had it.

Though I’d ascertained that the 1990-91 class year was one of the few for which no elementary school yearbook had been published, I should’ve anticipated that an elementary school teacher — that embodiment of self-sacrifice, gentle authority, fiduciary responsibility, and near pathological extremes of organizational skills — could be counted on even in retirement to maintain records as dutifully as she had whilst teaching hundreds of children throughout her long career.

I was in my Jeep in 30 seconds.

Mrs. Weeks was sweeping her porch in the evening dusk when I arrived; central casting couldn’t have concocted a more fitting “former elementary school teacher.” Now in her 80s, she was as warm and pleasant as ever. Her embrace was sweet yet surreal as — in accordance with one of time’s more tangible oddities — I now towered over a woman whom I’d last known to tower over me. She welcomed me into her home and led me to the photograph.

There we were: Randy, Evan, and me, interspersed with a score of instantly identifiable faces which would surely take me a beat to recognize in person today. For a few minutes, Mrs. Weeks (she insisted I call her Corinne, as if that were psychologically viable) and I together studied the photo; I offered as many cursory anecdotes and updates as I could concerning these former 7- and 8-year-olds now on the cusp of 40.

Their names flowed freely from my memory, which shouldn’t have been such a surprise, given that I’d lived every weekday during that 1990-91 school year with the very children now looking out at me from a shutter-speeded instant 31 years prior. In the decades since, the lives that intertwined in Mrs. Weeks’s classroom had radiated outward on 23 distinct journeys.

There were marriages and divorces, a few run-ins with the penal system, some intra-class romances, children, brave declarations of sexual identity, professional successes, family tragedies, and even deaths. To two of the people who’d been immortalized with me on 35mm film that day, I never got to say goodbye.

And this, 2022 Graduates, brings me to the lifehack.

The only thing we can ever truly own is our choices. Our choices — and their consequences — define our paths and identities. As complemented by a bit of chance, they create the sum total of who we are and, as importantly, how we’ll be remembered.

Choosing to live your life in a way that engenders fondness in former teachers and classmates who reconnect to reminisce about “the way things were” three decades hence will better equip you with an unparalleled resource: home.

Right now, you no doubt take “home” for granted. Good; you’ve been home long enough. It’s time to see what the world looks like a hundred or a thousand miles away, to take the risks that having a home to come home to makes possible, to redefine who you are. But don’t forget where you came from.

Life is a cascading waterfall of interminable goodbyes. And in the end, everything you love will be taken from you. But the goal, counterintuitively, is to ensure that there’s just so much to be taken — so many friends, so many people to love, so many cherished artifacts of your time on this planet.

If you do that, you’ll always have a safe place to which you can return — a place where people will give you a second chance for what you are because they remember what you were.

In just the past few months, an entrepreneurial venture which sprang from the creative minds of a few former kids in that second-grade class photo has realized a degree of success I never dared imagine. Renewing friendships to build a business has resulted in a business that now renews more friendships. And after having been away from home for the last 20 years, nothing is more humbling than feeling a community reopen its arms to one of its native sons.

So that’s what’s up, Graduates of the Class of 2022. You won’t know it at the time, but one day you and your friends will set out on what will later prove to be the last time you were all together. Maybe it’s a party this summer, maybe it’s a destination wedding or a 10-year reunion, maybe it’s some random Tuesday night in 2031 when you all get together for a drink before spouses, kids, and careers conspire to pull your clique to the four corners of the country — assuming Providence even keeps you around that long.

But for me and the friends with whom I’m building my company, that day hasn’t come yet.

And therein lies your lifehack: Bring your friends from the classrooms of your adolescence to the boardrooms of your adulthood; make the antics and exploits you pursued in study hall and detention, on stage and the sports fields, at recitals and school dances, be your path to success at the office, warehouse, garage, store, or salon.

Because life is full of goodbyes, but goodbyes don’t have to be forever. And if you look closely at the class photos from throughout the scholastic career you’ve just completed, you may find the very people who — with a bit of ingenuity and the skills you first honed in school — will someday be your partners in a grand new adventure at the start of life’s second half.

Keep in touch with your former fellow classmates, make amends if you make a mistake, and be willing to lend a hand where it counts. Because Mrs. Weeks isn’t responsible for looking after us anymore, but she has every expectation that we keep looking after each other.

And I have the same expectation for y’all. High school may be over, but you’ll always be bound together by the way things were.

Goodbye and so long,
good luck and keep strong.
And keep on ’a singing a song.