Last Saturday, I got the privilege of being asked to emcee the 50th anniversary of my alma mater Skyline School. Skyline was formed in the late '60s from the consolidation of four smaller schools in Pratt County, Kansas. The event was incredibly uplifting and was carried off without a hitch by Foundation President Lisa Befort. I thought I'd share my closing statement here. Ignore some of the non-sequiturs; they were inside jokes you had to hear earlier in the night to be in on:
Earlier this afternoon, that feeling you got in your chest when you smelled popcorn or when you found your name scratched on the wall behind the stage or when saw your old locker or when you found your class pictures hanging on the wall: that feeling has a name. It was originally a medical diagnosis. In 1688 medical student Johannes Hofer introduced the diagnosis of nostalgia. Nostos being the Greek root word for homecoming, and algos the root word for pain. Together: a wistful yearning for the past. A made-up word. Jim Webster would have been proud. Nostalgia’s symptoms were thought to include fainting, fever, indigestion, stomach pain, and sometimes even death.
Pratt is named for Caleb Pratt, who served in the First Kansas Infantry in the Civil War and was killed in action at the Battle of Wilson's Creek. But the Medical and Surgical History of the War of Rebellion, published 1888, reported that nostalgia “developed to a morbid degree” among Union soldiers over the course of the Civil War with 5,213 cases identified, resulting in 58 deaths among white soldiers and 334 cases and 16 deaths among the Union’s black soldiers. So let’s all be careful tonight.
So much of life is temporary: what we do, who we love, our friends, our enemies, even our names. But where we come from is permanent. And just like a church isn’t its walls, where we come from isn’t just a dot on the map. For many of us, where we come from doesn’t even warrant a dot, just coordinates.
Where we come from really is the sum total and interaction of the people and experiences of our youth. Not geographic happenstance. Where I come from isn’t a mile and a half northeast of Byers so much as it is the experience of Linda Broce crying as she said goodbye to me at the end of my first-grade school year. It’s the memory of the first of many times a teacher showed me kindness and expected nothing in return.
It’s not a school that looks from the highway ever so slightly like a federal prison as much as it is Brenda Piester trying to convince me that my future was infinite and undifferentiated and completely up to me. She was wrong about that last part. Most of my path has been decided by the generosity of people like her and others.
It’s not Pratt County so much as it is Debbie Withers and Carolyn Heaton teaching me not to take myself so seriously. And then Brad Pagenkopf and Ed Hayter and Jane Bolen teaching me that, well, maybe I should take myself a little more seriously than that.
It’s my first crush. And then the first time someone broke my heart. Both here.
It’s that on this basketball court, I first learned that what was best for me wasn’t necessarily the thing that was best for the team.
It’s that out on that dusty track east of the building I first realized that the best feeling I would ever know was the knowledge that win or lose, I’d tried my hardest at something.
It’s that in these classrooms I learned from kind words from people like Misty Beck and Araceli Coss that there is no shame in having a hard time. And the Fibonacci sequence. Thanks to Kim Lee and Steve Sparrow and Larry Sittner, I learned the Fibonacci sequence.
It’s the knowledge that once upon a time, people decided that it was worth their time and their money to give the kids of the little towns and farms of this county their own place to be proud of and their own place to be from, and it’s the reassuring knowledge that the voters, some of whom are in this room, but many of whom are no longer with us, approved their plan in a special election by a 3:1 margin.
Now that is what you call nostalgia. Everyone still alive? Good.
I have many people to thank. Thanks to Lisa Befort and AC Boland, who invited me back to do this. They knew how much I love the sound of my own voice. Thanks again to the Foundation Board. Thanks to Bob and Janice Moore for their razor-sharp memories. Special thanks to Misty Beck, The Harvey Weinstein to my Quentin Tarantino. She is one of the funniest people I know and one of the people on earth who I’m related to who I love the most. But most of all, thanks to all the people who have poured their taxes and their careers and all their good intentions into the futures of the kids who attended school in this building.