McKinley Student Welcomes Obama

President Barack Obama hugs McKinley High senior Che'dra Joseph, left, after she introduced the President at his town hall meeting at the school in Baton Rouge Jan. 14, 2016.

To hear a certain kind of truth float into the air can be devastating and heart wrenching. The truth, even when the volume is low, can deliver the force of thunder and lightning.

That happened for a few minutes amid days of fun and rejoicing this past weekend. But, let’s tell the back story, the fun part, on this first.

On Friday, Saturday and Sunday, I joined a group of people celebrating a class reunion of sorts, involving the McKinley High School classes of 1969 through 1972. You can figure out how old we are by looking at the years we graduated.

Age is not what we shared so much as what we’ve seen during our lives.

We witnessed the slow desegregation of the city bus service and the winding down of segregated restaurants and hotels in Baton Rouge. We saw the painstakingly slow desegregation of public schools and the slow resegregation of those schools.

We lived through the assassinations of John F. Kennedy, Robert Kennedy and the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. We knew about the murders of four little black girls attending Sunday school in Birmingham, Alabama.

We had grown up in a time when our elementary school teachers would go to our homes to discuss what we were doing wrong with our parents. We witnessed magical football, baseball, track and field and basketball years in high school.

We’ve shared the fear of athletic coaches whose mere stare could cause a room or gymnasium to go from noisy to complete silence in less than minute.

Many of us leapt into job opportunities and business ventures that didn’t exist for our parents. We’ve seen an African-American president, something none of us envisioned. Some of us even got to see that president, Barack Obama, actually visit our high school.

But now, more than 45 years removed from that setting, we got to see classmate and friends we admired in our youth. A lot of them have retired or on the verge of retiring. They have raised children and some have raised grandchildren.

We now look a little like our parents and grandparents appeared to us. However, we know our lives didn’t compare the awesome trials of their lives.

There were many hugs and smiles as we saw the folk we all knew were “can’t miss” successes. And, there were a few surprises, too. Some of our classmates had soared to heights we never expected.

We saw others who have overcome so much poverty and family adversity to stand tall here and other places. You really feel proud of them.

But then was something else, too, and we had to deal with it early on the first night. We knew it was coming and it would break our hearts.

We had set aside a portion of the program to honor those classmates who had died.

There was a gasp in the room when the Class of 1969 announced they had over 60 classmates to pass. In fact, the average number of deaths was near 60. There were 50 in my class. And, as we learned later, a few names were left off.

When you do the math, that’s a little over one classmate per year since graduation. But that’s not how it feels. For my class, 50 deaths, is almost 20 percent of the people I graduated with. Those were people who laughed and cried with you for most of your childhood and some of your adult life.

When the names were read off, you could see their faces, from so long ago, as they walked around campus or the neighborhood with you. You thought about the times you confided your secrets with them.

And, then you think, “Yeah, I went to his or her funeral.” Or, “Wow, I didn’t know he or she had died.”

You wish like everything that you had maintained contact with some of them. But in the end, it is how life goes. Death is an inextricable part of it. But, man, you wish you could have one more minute with that classmate, with that friend.

At the end of our three-day gathering, we took group photos. My class decided we would take a different kind of photo. Instead of standing shoulder to shoulder, we decided we would wave our arms and leap into the air. Yeah, that would be great.

When I looked at the photo, not one person leapt. I’m sure many of us nixed the idea knowing the amount of pain the effort and landing would have caused. I know the photo and the weekend will be something to talk about years from now.

It’s like the Dr. Seuss quote: “Sometimes you will never know the value of a moment until it becomes a memory.”

Email Edward Pratt, a former newspaperman who writes a weekly Advocate column, at epratt1972@yahoo.com.