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Spring Quarter, 1968

Lead Summary
Note: Jim Thompson's column will resume soon. Meanwhile, The Highland County Press is republishing some of "the best of" his columns. This one was first published in 2015.

By Jim Thompson
HCP columnist

This was the quarter I graduated from high school. It was a quarter filled with many memories. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated. Although there was little in the way of protests or disturbances in our little town, the large cities were torn apart in the riots that followed this heinous act.

As a 17-year-old focused on my own world, I did not give this the consideration it deserved.

I was focused on graduating, getting into college, paying for college and avoiding the draft. I had always planned on going to college, so the draft was a bit of an afterthought, but it was present. The Vietnam War was raging on and, during this quarter a person from the class of 1967 at my high school was killed in Vietnam – a young man who had been in the same gym class as me the year before. That brought it home to me.

However, despite these momentous events, one thing has stuck with me all these years later, one thing that I still wish I could fix.

There was a young lady in our school, a bit younger than me, who obviously came from a very poor family. She wore the same dress to school every day. The boys that hung around the steps to the high school figured out she was wearing the same dress every day. They would taunt her every morning when she “ran the gauntlet” by stating her name and saying how many days in a row she had worn that dress.

I had my own self-conscious problems – crooked teeth and a limited wardrobe. In fact, there is seldom a day, even now, 47 years later, which I don’t walk into my closet and think about my clothes selection now versus then.

I think about my mother washing clothes with a wringer washer and in the winter time, hanging them in the kitchen to dry from the heat of the wood burning stove in the middle of the room. I throw them in the laundry basket with abandon after one wearing and think I am being wasteful of resources. I push the button on our electric dumb waiter and the laundry basket goes downstairs to the laundry room – pure decadence.

But back to the young lady. Teenagers can be so cruel to each other. I often wonder what happened to her. Did this horrible experience make her strong or did it crush her?

Personally, I am embarrassed that I did not do something about it, at the same time recognizing I was just an immature teenager, too, at that time.

However, some in our class played the game differently and were stronger people even then than I was. One of these was my best friend. A football player, he was popular, but not for the usual reasons football players were popular. He treated me and everyone else differently than almost any teenager I have ever seen before or since.

Now, granted, I had something he wanted. I lived on 450 acres of farmland and he lived in town and liked to hunt. I represented his game preserve. But his friendship was beyond befriending me for I saw him treat all equally. He found the way to be genuinely popular in high school, although I don’t even think that was his goal.

His secret? He showed a genuine interest in everyone with whom he had a conversation. He asked about you, what you had been doing, how are you?

This was action that turned the typical teenager focus on its head. Every teenager wants others to pay attention to them. Nearly every teenager really doesn’t care about anyone else – it is all about them. And here was a wise teenager – one who somehow had figured it out and behaved accordingly.

The assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King was terrible. Bullying, as the young lady experienced, was also terrible in its own way. Yet, my friend showed us how to really make a difference. It has stuck with me all these years, and when I slip up, I think about his exemplary behavior in a set of conditions where few had life figured out.

I wish I had behaved better at the time and many times since then when I have failed to be the kind of human being I was raised to be. The great thing is there is one teenager that set an example that has stuck with me all these years, one whose example I still hold up as behavior to which I should aspire.

Jim Thompson, formerly of Marshall, is a graduate of Hillsboro High School and the University of Cincinnati. He resides in Duluth, Ga., following decades of wandering the world, and is a columnist for The Highland County Press.

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