Almost all of us have been asked the question, “If you could go back and do it over, and keep the knowledge you have today, would you go back to high school?”
The answers that I have given over the years have been varied depending on what stage of life I was in. When I first arrived at college, I realized that I had enjoyed all the perks of high school without developing any study skills. That first and second quarter at East Tennessee State, I wished I could go back to the beginning of high school and pay attention to what all the teachers said. Floundering, I dropped out, enlisted, and learned some discipline the hard way.
There were times, usually when life was difficult, I longed for the days of living at home, no bills, few responsibilities, and the relatively care-free life of high school days. It’s like the lottery. We fantasize about what we’d do if we won the fifty gadzillion dollar payout and we fantasize about how our life would be different if we got a second chance . . . if we could live out the plot of “Back to the Future.”
My high school turned 100 years old this year. Not the buildings, there have been several of those. But the entity itself has been a constant in my hometown for a century. My graduating class, which was the school’s 50th graduating class, had its 50th reunion this summer. I wasn’t able to go but I followed the news and photos on social media as best I could.
As a part of catching up with my fellow classmates, I began to visit a Facebook page dedicated to our “fallen comrades,” students who have died over the years. I’ve listened to stories, accounts, and gossip about how people have done over the years and have decided that, if I had a chance to go back, knowing what I know now, I would not do it.
The problem is that, now, with the passage of half a century, I know too much. I know that one of my football team mates will be killed in a construction accident just a few weeks after graduation. Two of the people I went to high school with will be killed in Vietnam. In just a few years, a girl from our church youth group will die of leukemia. We dated a few times and she was a sweet, sweet girl. Another girl who had a smile and a kind word for everyone will die within two years of a disease she didn’t know she had until it was too late.
Another boy who had a baby face, a ready smile, and played linebacker will go on to be a doctor as was his father before him. He, too, will die young. A heart attack, I think, but I’m not sure. We were entering the 1970s and several will become addicted to drugs and die of overdoses or drug-related complications. One of my fellow football players will go to prison; another will put a gun to his head.
Many more than I would have thought back then will marry the loves of their lives and find themselves in divorce court as their dreams fall in shambles about them. For some, the experience will repeat several times.
One of my good friends became a dentist. Not all that long ago, a crazed and estranged husband came into the dental office and shot and killed the employee, a receptionist, from whom he was estranged. Had a patient not been armed and shot the assailant, who knows if anybody would have survived that day?
These are the things that you don’t hear about at the graduation commencement speech. The speaker almost always paints a future that is bright, hopeful, attainable, and certain. The valedictorian congratulates the grads on their achievements and opines about how the future is in their hands and great days are ahead.
Well, yes. And, no. Some will go on to achieve all their dreams and live happily ever after, with a few bumps along the road. Others, our fellow classmates with whom we have shared lunches, pep rallies, and good times, will experience disasters. Almost everyone will encounter heartache and severe challenges in the days ahead. None of our class were prepared for that. There are things they don’t prepare you for in high school.
People, however, are, for the most part, resilient. They “take a licking and keep on ticking,” as the old Timex watch commercial proclaimed. Most will overcome the anguish of divorce and find joy with someone else. Others will lose their jobs and start over and have good success. Some will lose children to accident, tragedy, or illness and never get over it, though they will move past it . . . eventually.
For my part, I am glad that I did not know what was on the horizon. While I am grateful for what I deem to be a good and fruitful life, there were moments — many, many moments — of pain, heartache, and anguish that, had I known they were coming, I think I would have despaired of life.
Although I sometimes say that I wish I knew what the future holds, the truth is that I do not. As a Christian, I know Who holds the future and I trust Him. That is how I have been able to navigate the tumultuous waters of this life, even though there have been many times when I was in over my head and thought I would surely drown.
So, no, I would not go back. I don’t think I could bear the heavy load of knowing what was ahead for some of these, my friends. I think that, if I did go back, the days of sorrow would outweigh the joys of those happy days.
Speaking of “Happy Days,” don’t we all imagine, those of us who regularly watched that show, that Fonzie, Ritchie, Ralph, Potsie, Joanie and the others all went on to have good, happy, prosperous lives? Do we also not imagine that those with whom we have lost contact had such lives after high school?
And certainly some, maybe most, did. When I was in my 20s and perused my high school annuals, I saw all the smiling faces and just assumed that life was grand for everyone. Now, when I do, as I did a few weeks ago, I cannot assume anymore because, in many cases, I know. For some of them I grieve at what I know became their loss and their sorrow.
But I also know this: some of those who have faced the greatest obstacles and challenges have overcome and have become victorious in spite of what life threw at them. When I saw the group photographs of my 50th reunion, I noticed that everyone had large smiles. The conversations that were pictured showed delight, engagement, and shared experiences. Most of those folks are retired now and I would guess most look back at their lives with few regrets. They are who they are, due, in no small part, to the lives they led and the challenges they faced.
As for me, I still know who holds the future. And, if there are choppy seas ahead, I trust the One who walks on the water to get me safely to whatever boat or shore is waiting.
[David Epps is the pastor of the Cathedral of Christ the King, Sharpsburg, GA between Newnan and Peachtree City (www.ctk.life). He is the bishop of the Diocese of the Mid-South which consists of Georgia and Tennessee and the Associate Endorser for the Department of the Armed Forces, U. S. Military Chaplains, ICCEC. He may contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.]