Sometimes it seems like my high school days passed long ago, but other times it doesn’t seem that far in the past at all. I have had occasions to reflect upon those thoughts a few times this summer.
Just over a month ago I was exiting a funeral service when I heard someone call my name. I raised my head, and standing before me was someone I had not laid eyes on since probably the day we graduated from high school 38 years ago.
It was Phil Cole, a high school basketball and track teammate, and I recognized him instantly. Phil was always a good guy, and a much better athlete than most probably knew. He proved that at the collegiate level when he became a successful triple jumper.
As we tallked that day, we recalled a few things like that. Here’s one we did not discuss.
Phil was not a regular starter in basketball, but once when we were playing Miami Trace (which advanced to the AAA state tournament that year) and the infamous Art Schlichter, Phil drew the assignment of guarding Schlichter, who went on to become an All-American quarterback at Ohio State and a first-round NFL draft pick. Schlichter was a guard, and so was I, and I deeply desired the assignment of trying to slow him down. But the fact of the matter is that I was 5-9 and 125, maybe, Phil was taller, quicker and stronger, and our coach made the right decision to have me gaurd someone else, even if I didn’t think so at the time.
Anyway, the day of the funeral, Phil, my wife Elaine, and I chatted a couple times, and Phil, now a director of development at Savannah State University, gave me his business card.
It had been good to see a friendly face from nearly four decades ago, so a couple weeks later I shot him an email saying: “Just wanted to let you know it was good to see you earlier this month. Lots of memories from a long time ago — and all good. Sometimes though, it doesn’t seem like all that long ago. Anyway, if you’re ever up this way and get bored, give us a shout.”
The next day I received an email from Phil. It said: “Yes, it was good to see Elaine and you. When I look at both of you, it is funny but I saw us sitting in Mrs. Smith’s room at the end of the day [that was in the eighth or ninth grade]. Strangely enough, you really enjoyed her subject. It impacted you in some way. Now that is a while back, but it was that feeling. Like it was yesterday. Let me extend to you the same invitation. If you decide to come this way, I will expect to see you. Take care yourselves so that we will be able to reminisce about those days.”
The late Mary Smith was our English teacher in those early high school days. What Phil was trying to say, I think, is that since I have been writing for a living for such a long time, something I learned in Mrs. Smith’s class must have rubbed off on me.
And who knows. He may very well be right. It’s hard to figure sometimes what starts us down the paths we eventually find ourselves on. But, I do not believe that Mrs. Smith and I were ever quite on the same page, so while she likely had some type of influence on me, I have to think there were others that had more when it comes to the written word.
Maybe my early inspiration came from one of those eighth grade Latin classes that Phil and I took together under the guidance of Mr. Brian Jones. Maybe it was the late Mildred McCloskey, our English teacher later in high school. I recall having to write a long essay for her and that my chosen subject was the Vietnam War. “Millie,” as others called her, was a tough cookie, and I do not remember us exactly seeing eye to eye either. But in later years, especially when I started writing these columns, she would slip me a complimentary note here and there, and once told me she could not believe I was the same person that sat in her English class.
But the two people, no doubt, who are most responsible for starting me on the path I now find myself on were my next door neighbors during my college years, Cathy and the late Ed Daniels. They both taught English classes at Southern State and I had them both for various classes. Specifically, it was English Composition that likely set me on my way. While lots of people in the class struggled, it came relatively easy for me. I don’t know why, but it did.
So when it came time to move on from Southern State, I changed my major from education to a double major of journalism and physical education.
Somewhere along that path I got a little lost, life and love got in the way, and I never completed either degree.
But, since I started out in this business as a sports writer and now write mostly about other things, maybe that double major idea wasn’t all that far off.
Maybe Phil wasn’t all that far off either in figuring where my early writing influence came from.
Either way, it doesn’t really matter. It was just nice to see a friendly face I had not laid eyes on for so long.
Judging from his email and the brief time we chatted, he remembers details from long ago much like I do.
Then again, sometimes it doesn’t seem so long ago.
Reach Jeff Gilliland at 937-402-2522 or firstname.lastname@example.org.