Hundreds of teens are waking up all over Columbia County this morning to a startling realization:
Their breath stinks.
It'll probably then hit them, while brushing their teeth, that the person looking back at them in the mirror also has really bad morning hair. And in spite of all that the person is a high school graduate.
Slowly, too, the realization is dawning on them that there was an absence from their commencement exercises Saturday: Me.
Oh, I was in the audience. At least for Harlem High School's graduation, where my nephew, Aristides Lindsey Hardin III, walked across the stage of the James Brown Arena and Airhorn Test Facility.
But I wasn't on the stage. And I'm sure this morning, the groggy graduates are feeling the weight of that absence like a hangover from an Augusta Prep after-prom party.
This is my annual recognition of that omission, in memory of my friend and fellow columnist Aubrey Shaw, who passed away before being invited to impart his words of wisdom during commencement exercises.
Now, I don't know that either Aubrey or I would have said anything so profound that the newly minted graduates would even remember it this morning.
So rather than speculate about words that would impact their future, it seemed appropriate to seek wisdom from the past.
Rose Marie McNeill was on that stage herself once, accepting her diploma from Harlem High 50 years ago with her 23 fellow seniors.
The Columbia News covered Harlem's May 27, 1957 commencement, noting that McNeill delivered the salutatory address. The highlight of Superintendent of Schools John Pierce Blanchard's comments was a David-and-Goliath analogy of the Harlem class vs. the world.
That world was far different back then. For one thing, McNeill says, "I never remember anybody getting in trouble in school."
An exception: "One boy got reprimanded. The (singing) trio was practicing, and of course the room had an open window. He howled like a wolf under the window; that was the worst thing that happened all year," she laughed.
Students knew trouble at school meant double at home. So they behaved themselves, McNeill says.
She also had unique circumstances: When she graduated in 1957, she'd already been married two years to a man she met at a church revival. Blanchard said she could stay in school as long as she was "normal" - "that meant not pregnant," she explains.
After graduation, McNeill borrowed money to attend Augusta College. The next summer she got a job to repay the loan and never looked back; her job paid more than her college-degreed neighbor earned.
She's now planning a 50-year reunion of her Harlem class. What advice does McNeill have for this year's graduates?
"They need to keep themselves clean, morally and physically, and really apply themselves to the best of their ability," she said. "But I think most of them don't apply themselves. They don't give a hoot whether they do or don't make it. When I came along, there was nothing I wanted more than to be an honor graduate for my mother."
Today's grads live in a noisy world of electronic distractions that didn't exist 50 years ago, McNeill says, but there has also been a change in attitude. "A lot of them think the world owes them a living. They're in for quite a shock."
That shock will be worse than a bad case of pillow hair, and it'll take more than a shower to fix.
I share much of Mrs. McNeill's angst. But I'm also an optimist, and see in that sea of teen faces a bounty of hopes and possibilities.
If they had asked me to speak, I would have sent them forth with best wishes for a bright future and cheers for their success.
And a reminder to brush their teeth.
Barry L. Paschal is publisher of The Columbia County News-Times. E-mail comments to barry.paschal at newstimesonline.com.
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