High School Reunion Speech
WHEN DOROTHY SHEPPARD called in March to ask if I would speak a moment at our 50th year reunion, I was quite complimented. I thought she must remember graduation and the "fabulous" speech I made there. Then I wondered what in the world it was I spoke about, and I couldn't begin to remember. One thing about it, however, it was short. So perhaps that was the key to the invitation.
Then a few days later I was thinking of mementous ideas to present, one of my patients won a $20 million lotto. Think of what you could do with a sum like that! Remember when we started out; $20 million would have probably bought all of East St. Louis.
Stamps were 2 cents for a letter-when they went to 3 cents our parents complained about the high cost of writing. Children's streetcar fares were 3 cents. Majestic matinees were 10 cents. Even ice cream cones (when we got them) were only 5 cents each. Jelly beans were 10 for a penny. We grew up in depression times. Since none of us had money, we were imbued with a great sense of equality. We adapted. We walked to school and church and parks. When our shoes wore out, they were resoled. (No $120 Adidas). We shined them at night to keep them presentable.
I remember the year I had only one pair of pants. Every evening I would brush them and hang them straight to be ready for the next day. And when the knees got baggy, I pressed them with a wet cloth. We all did similar things to keep going
Yet there were many activities we enjoyed. that helped us grow without dependence on money or technology. Few cars were on the streets so all kids could play ball in the readily available space. Our neighborhood had just one ball and one bat, but we had fun pickup games with anywhere from 3 to 20 kids. Once a year the East St. Louis journal took all the Knot Hole boys to Sportsman's Park to see the Cardinals-free!. I still remember when Dizzy Dean knocked a home run in the 10th inning to win a tied ball game.
There were no televisions to make us into zombies, and nintendo games weren't even anticipated. Radio had Amos and Andy at bedtime and Orphan Annie just after school. But newspapers had Buck Rogers and Terry and the Pirates, so we had to learn to read to enjoy them. And the library at 9th and State was so well stocked with adventure stories - all free.
Those were the days of family get-togethers, too. we knew our aunts and uncles and cousins. Indeed, many times there were 3 or 4 generations living together because of lack of employment. We learned to value each other and even how to quarrel fairly without mortally wounding the opponent. I can remember uncles talking vigorously about politics and religion and other violent subjects, then all going to sing together around the piano without any rancor left over.
All in all it was a great day to grow up. We had no money, but we learned to enjoy what was available. We were not confined to electronics but free to learn about nature, and physical activities, and each other. We picnicked in the parks and walked in the woods. We raised gardens and chickens. We cut grass without power mowers. We begged ice from the iceman and had milk delivered by a man with a horse and wagon.
We were poor, but not poverty stricken because we had purpose.
Since we were all in the same economic boat we needed no distinctions between abilities of boys and girls. We had a mixture of races - many of us first and second generation Americans - and knew possibilities were going to open up for us if we tried our best. There was no need to divide into little ethnic groups, because we lived in the Land of Opportunity for everyone. We did have various interests and abilities, but there would be room for all of them when we became adults.
So we grew up with the purpose of achieving. We were anxious to learn and to read through, actually, I never appreciated "Mill on the Floss". We knew iambic pentameter, a2 + b2 = C2, Brownian movements, Shakespeare's comedies and tragedies, the Gettysburg address, the difference between sentences needing so=as clauses from those requiring as-as clauses. We even knew that "Honey, I Shrunk the Kids" was ear shatteringly bad grammar, and that boats "sank" rather than "sunk". "Whom" had its own place. Singular personal pronouns reflected singular nouns. Even "ain't" was a poor substitute for "is not".
We had heroes in those days. And our heros had no feet of clay. Washington was the father of our country, leader in war and peace. Lincoln was the great liberator who preserved the Union. Any president was our chosen leader and deserved our respect and support, even though he might be of a different political party. Ministers were selfless. Teachers had unlimited knowledge for us. Even Joe Louis was invincible in the boxing ring.
So we were willing to grow up with ideals. Our purpose was to have the facilities within to emulate the great people of our society. Then if greatness presented itself, we would be ready to accept it. If it did not, we could live normal, productive and secure lives and contribute to our own towns and neighborhoods.
Yes, we were poor, but purpose kept us going. We had reasons for pride.
Think of the teachers we had in those days! Coach Downing taught us to be and think as winners. Miss Healey knew we could learn to speak correct and understandable English. Miss Green made us sing in ways we never thought possible. Mr. Eros showed us the logic of chemistry. Miss Davis gave us Latin as a living language. And Mr. Baughman kept the whole high school running. We respected and somewhat feared our teachers but over-all knew them as friends.
Think of the things we learned in everyday life: how to work for the treasures we needed and wanted, how to help each other when the going was tough, where to look for information, how to plan for the future, how to stand on our own two feet when we were put on the spot.
Think of the confidence we had in each other. The students were the brightest. The girls were the prettiest. The football players were the winners. The cheerleaders were the peppiest. The musicians were the most accomplished. We had the pride of the Class of 1940.
We were proud because we knew hardship was just a step in making us self sufficient. We did not grow up to be forever dependent on the dole or the good will of others. We expected to be responsible, dependable and independent adults. We wanted to accept our roles in life, whatever those roles might be. And we wanted to be accepted because we were ready--not just because we eventually would reach the magic 21 years of maturity.
We were poor growing up. But we had purpose and pride.
One other thing we had, though we scarcely realized it and might even had denied it at the time. We had prayer. We had grown up in churches. We knew there were different faiths and different practices. Yet we saw our fellow classmates with the same ideals and the same sense of responsibility, and we knew behind us all was one vital Creator.
We didn't talk about prayer in those days. We didn't90 to the streets and demonstrate about the superficialities of religion. Nevertheless, the times did come when we depended on prayer. Since high school we have known war with its terrors. We have known life and death of friends and family. We have known financial and emotional trials. We have known fear and frustration. We have felt fatigue and despair. The right and ability to pray, as we learned 50 years and more ago, has continued' to sustain us through the years, and will sustain us the rest our course.
We are now entering the second half of the century since we left East Side. Middle age has become reality. We have losta number of our classmates. We now are the senior citizens society.
We have the possibility of telling our grandchildren and soon our great grandchildren how we all were poor, but we grew with purpose and pride, and we continued through adversity with prayer. We had patriotism and pragmatism, too, but time flies too fast to talk about them.
For years I have carried a clipping in my wallet. It is one that makes me think of our class and its possibilities for the future: "Live by the old ethics and the classical rules of honesty. Put no new names or notions on authentic virtues or vices. Think not that morality is ambulatory; that vices in one age are not vices in another: or that virtues, may be stumped by opinion. And therefore, though vicious times invent the opinion of things and set up new ethics against virtue, yet hold on to the old morality: and rather than follow the multitude to do evil, stand like Pompey's Pillars conspicuous by thyself and single in integrity".
It is this ability to stand alone for right and true progress we learned at East Side fifty years ago. It is this ability to endure which will bring us together again.
We have never been poor in spirit. We have been sustained by purpose, by pride, by prayer, by patriotism, and by pragmatism. Even after 50 years, we still anticipate the future as the East Side Class of 1940.