Column: Chasing the dream

By DAVID GUSTAFSON,

It’s hard for me to believe, but I graduated from high school 26 years ago this week.

Might as well have been yesterday, as far as I’m concerned.

I have written it many times before, but by all accounts, high school graduation is simultaneously one of the most important – and least important – moments of your life.

Like taking your first steps and getting your driver’s license, for many people, the act of graduating from high school marks the transition to yet another phase of independence.

Sort of.

In these United States, students are expected - nay, required - to complete their secondary education. Failing to graduate from high school is generally frowned upon and depending on the year, the Magnolia State is almost always ranked among the worst four or five states when it comes to dropout rates.

For those who finish high school, the expectation remains for most to continue their education – whether in college or at a trade school – but for all intents and purposes, it is generally up to the individual student to choose their own path.

At least it was in my case.

I can still remember driving around with my friends on the weekend before graduation, listening to music, and wondering what life would eventually throw our way.

It was Darin, Tom, Ryan and me. Us against the world. Or at least the world as we knew it at the time.

For those keeping track at home, “Set Adrift by Memory Bliss,” by P.M. Dawn was on repeat.

Looking back, we didn’t have a clue. It was a time before marriage, children, and mortgages. It was before full-time jobs, IRAs, insurance co-payments, and federal income tax.

For me, it was a time when the hardest decision I had to make was whether to spend my Saturday afternoon at the movies or at the lake.

Even if some curmudgeon-y newspaper publisher had tried to tell us otherwise, we couldn’t have truly understood how good we had it.

When I think back about the newfound freedom I had at my fingertips that summer, I laugh at the mere thought of how ridiculous I must have acted.

I had it all figured out – or so I thought.

I was a big shot – at least in my own mind. I had a couple of hundred dollars in my savings account and had just purchased my first newish car – a shiny Geo Metro “wagonback.”

What more could I have asked for – besides a little common sense?

That summer, my particular group of friends and I tried to spend as much time together as possible. We were all headed to different colleges and we knew that come the fall, things would change forever.

Darin and Tom were heading off to the University of Arkansas. Ryan was moving to the other side of the state to attend a private, Christian university in Oklahoma City. And I was staying somewhat close to home to attend junior college.

Fast forward a quarter-century and we were right about things changing.

In those days, none of us had steady girlfriends. Today, the four of us have 13 children combined.

Darin works in the hydrogen fuel cell industry and lives just outside of Kansas City, Mo. He’s married to Stephanie and together they have two young children.

Ryan works in finance and sales for a transportation firm and lives just outside of Dallas, Texas.­ He has been married twice and has four children. He lost his father a number of years ago to Lou Gehrig’s Disease and his mother has since remarried.

Tom works in logistical operations and lives outside of Nashville, Tenn. He and his wife, Jenny, have been married for nearly 20 years and have three children.

And me? I’m trying to keep my head above water in the newspaper business here in Dixieland and doing my best to raise four teenage sons without going completely grey-headed in the process.

Maybe I’m wrong, but I don’t think any of us could have predicted the curves life has thrown our way. Nor would we have wanted to.

There was something magical about that summer after we graduated from high school and to this day, it still seems to elude us. Maybe it was the innocence we still carried with us back in those days. Maybe it was naivety to understand what was to come.

Then again, maybe it was just plain ol’ ignorance.

Whatever it was, after 26 years, it is likely long gone. At least for Tom, Darin, Ryan and the rest of our Pryor High School Class of ’92.

These days, we have a different vantage point as our children begin that same journey.

When my kids were little, I used to look at them with a cockeyed smile and say, “You think you’re smarter than me?”

As it turns out, they are literally smarter than I am. And I couldn’t be more proud of the young men they’re becoming.

My oldest son, Bynum, graduated from high school last year and he just finished his freshman year in the honors college up at Middle Tennessee State University. He blew through this semester with a 3.86 grade point average and is already an entire semester ahead of where he should be as he pursues a Bachelor’s Degree in the College of Media and Entertainment.

His three younger brothers will all be in high school next year and just like that, the cycle continues.

In the grand scheme of things, graduating from high school may not have been a very big deal.

But most days I’d give anything to jump in that Geo Metro and go back for another spin.

David Gustafson, the youngest son of the youngest son of the youngest son, is the not-so-mild-mannered editor and publisher of The Hattiesburg Post, The Lamar Times, and The Petal News. He graduated from high school in 1992; his father in 1957; and his grandfather in 1930. Barring any unforseen difficulties, Gustafson’s own youngest son will graduate from Oak Grove High School with the Class of 2022. Four  generations and 92 years separate the graduation dates of these four youngest Gustafson sons.