The Class of South Pacific, by Rich Paschall
It seems like an odd thing to say to high school or college graduates, and yet we say it all the time. Students are probably listening to graduation speeches in wonder, perhaps even shock at this notion. There it is, however, an oft-repeated idea that older folks are selling to the young.
“These are the best years of your life,” some may exclaim. Others may narrow it down to tell students, “You will look back on this as the best year of your life.” The best year?
It was a long time ago, and I can not recall specifically what I heard at my various graduations, but I am pretty sure the idea was sold to me somewhere. “How can this be?” graduates may ask themselves. “What about the next 60 years? You mean to say, ‘this is it’?”
Are these youthful years the best years of our lives? Is this where we had the best times, best friends, best dances and concerts and music and well, everything? The answer is a surprising yes, and no.
When I was in third year of high school I learned that DePaul Academy would be closing and we would all be shipped off to another area high school. To be perfectly honest, I did not like this a bit. Despite the tough discipline of my school and the fear of 4th year Latin, I wanted to go to a similar environment. However, the school where I applied to go to for 4th year would not take any incoming seniors. So off I went where they sent me, bound to make the best of it.
There were a few familiar faces at the new school, some were transfers, some I knew from grade school. There were also dances and plays. They had a fine arts department (something lacking at the all boys academy) and teachers who seemed to care about you as well as your studies. I took drama, not fourth year Latin. I came, I saw, I took something else.
The social activities meant more opportunities to make friends. The interaction was an education itself. Soon there was a group of us that hung together a lot, and some of us still do.
The most remarkable part of this transition was the “Senior Class Play.” Yes, so many students wanted to take part, it was just for seniors, as in 17 and 18-year-old students. I got the nerve to audition. I have no idea what I sang. Everybody was in the show so it did not matter that a hundred of us showed up. We were going to do South Pacific. I was rather unaware of it.
Aside from learning the art of theater (Project, Enunciate, Articulate, Stand up straight), I learned about the classic story of war, hate, prejudice and, of course, love. Learning to play our parts was important. We were commanded to be professional in everything. We also learned a story that held a dramatic lesson in life.
When the movie starring Mitzi Gaynor, Rosanno Brazzi and Ray Waltson was re-released, we ran off to see it. In subsequent years, we saw several community theater productions as well as professional versions of the classic Rogers and Hammerstein musical. We grew to love the theater and the lessons that such musicals could bring to us. We learned why fine arts were so important in the schools.
So we were fortunate. We had a positive experience and a good education. We learned our lessons in the halls as well as the classroom, in the gym which was also our auditorium. We signed one another’s yearbooks and held on to them like they were made of gold. But was it the best year of my life? If so, what about all the intervening years?
It is an interesting paradox that you can not adequately explain to an 18-year-old graduate. Yes, it was the best year up to that point, and it will always remain so. Nothing can ever take away those memories, so hopefully they are all positive. Those lessons of love and life will influence everything from that point on.
While you are busy making new memories, a career, a family perhaps, and new friends, they will all be measured against “the best year of your life,” whether it is 18 or 21. Some friends may be better, some lessons may be better, some experiences may be better, but they will all be measured against those moments in youth when you discovered who you were and where you were going. The quality of future friendships must stand up to those already at hand.
If you have a South Pacific in your memory bank, you will tell people all across the (hopefully) many generations that come through your life how this was a great experience. You may say it was best time ever. If your younger friend looks sorry that your best times were so far back, remind them to enjoy what they have because it will be the springboard to everything else. It will be their touchstone.
Every spring, without fail for these many decades, the change of seasons hits me like some great coming of age story. My imagination calls up images of Bali Hai and I hear echoes of “There Is Nothing Like A Dame” in the distance. I once again feel “Younger Than Springtime” and every night is “Some Enchanted Evening.” Whenever I look back to the Class of South Pacific, I can also look forward with a lot of “Happy Talk” for everyone who will listen.