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For the first time in nearly four decades, Shelby County Public Schools graduated two classes of seniors on Saturday.
Though these teenagers traversed the threshold from child/student to adult in a simple march across a podium and in the gentle grasp of an administrator’s hand, the final understanding of how far they have come, how much they learned and can accomplish, won’t be on life’s diploma until, oh, a few decades from now.
They may think they have a good idea about their futures. They may know who among them will be the most accomplished in life. They may believe they have a clairvoyant’s claim on the future.
They look at their test scores, their AP credits, their athletic, artistic and academic accomplishments and believe no barrier is too high, no distance too far, no problem too complicated, no battle too intense.
They will see it as a testament to their potential that so many colleges invested millions to lure their talents to their elite campuses. They will stand on their 18-year-old accomplishments as if they were scaffolds of gilded granite.
But, as those of us who did this a while back now cleanly grasp, they don’t know an ant’s IQ about much of anything.
They have yet to register for their most difficult courses, have yet to open the most demanding test booklets, have yet to see with anything approaching 20/20 the next step across the stones strung amid rushing waters of tribulation.
They won’t know until they, well, know.
And I say that because of what I now know.
A few years back, when I was part of a graduating class, we were as dreamy, hopeful and clueless as the best of them.
We saw that we had crossed the mountaintop and believed with sure-sited certainty that only gentle, grassy, sunbaked slopes awaited us on the other side.
To be sure, some of the 200-or-so class members from our two schools were truly outstanding. Some earned scholarships – though a far, far inflation-adjusted tax bracket from the millions of 2011 – and many were headed toward wonderful institutions of higher learning or well-positioned careers.
But – let me clear my throat and crack my knuckles before I type these words – that was 40 years ago.
And I know with more than an educated guess that reality can be far, far more incredible than the dream.
In fact, I think the Class of 1971 – at both Shelby County and Shelbyville – may have been the most accomplished of its time, if you set aside some rather tepid athletic results.
Dizzy Dean, one of life’s great philosophers and poets, once said something to the effect of “if you do it and say so, it ain’t braggin’.”
So what I say here is not “braggin,” but more like stating for an honor court clear, blue undeniables.
The Class of ’71 kicked some posterior flesh.
This testimony does not lie in the sworn statements I type here but in the irrefutable physical evidence that lives in offices, at lofty addresses and on rolls of honor of public service, artistry, business and humanity.
In fact, I daresay that you can’t go through a week – perhaps a day – of your life without encountering one of us in one fashion or another. We are ubiquitous, obsequious and, of course, humble.
Without naming a lot of names – you will know some right off the top of your head – the class, by my unscientific and incomplete survey, has produced at the very least:
A multiterm state senator, two magistrates, a district judge, two circuit court clerks, at least four ordained ministers, a couple of military officers, a home economist, a couple of state-level agricultural officials, a Boston-educated concert musician, a pizza magnate, several accountants, business owners and managers, an agent with Louisville’s most prestigious real estate firm, authors, a vault full of bankers, a dentist, a postal manager, some state managers who have long since retired, a funeral director, a press manager, a library official and more tenured educators and successful agricultural producers than you can count. And, yes, one newspaper editor.
Some became parents of even more successful and high-potential children.
And, in the mission of balance, we had a couple whose lives wouldn’t be blueprints we would draw up for anyone.
Sadly, too, many accomplished members have left their marks and left our worlds, though their imprints remain on our souls and in our minds.
We didn’t envision that back in the day of Three Dog Night and the Big Red Machine.
We’re not sure Clyde and Lynda Tharp, Evan Settle, Mary Matilda Beard, Susan Fields, Suzanne Kephart, Mitch Bailey, Mary Helen Miller, Arnold Thurman or Richard Greenwell, to name a few would have predicted as much.
When we gathered each decade to reconstruct the paths of our lives, nothing seemed so overwhelmingly star-powered.
But when we look back at our full body of work, when we recognize the impact of this group on lives, community and, yes, even the future in Shelby County, we see a greatness that we challenge all others to surpass.
The irony is that – like the seniors of 2011 – we have no idea how this will be viewed 40 years from now, when some of us will sit in rockers and tell stories of what just happened in a century. Because, as Ol’ Diz might have said, “We ain’t done yet.”
Likely one day we’ll pull out our new electronic toy, wink at some screen or hologram and open up a history of our generation that will be long, colorful and, well, accomplished.
We will shake our heads that it all seems a fuzzy, distant journey from a day it all seemed so clear.
Graduation Day, 1971. A day history was begun to be written.
May the class of 2011 shoot for our mark.