The road to Providence

My first flight after 9/11, and frankly I'm a bit nervous. I finally settle into my aisle seat, where a smiling flight attendant calms me down with a Sprite and a bag of pretzels. The flight is uneventful, most of my fellow passengers buried in their business laptops. After a layover in Pittsburgh, I'm on my way to Providence, where a longtime friend will pick me up to enjoy an evening reminiscing with his family on Old Cape Cod. It's a perfect place to leave behind the troubled world of the present.

The next morning we drive to Mashantucket, Conn., to revisit the past. The place: Foxwoods, a fancy resort casino, more like the Land of Oz than an Indian reservation. The occasion: the 40th reunion of the John Jay High School Class of 1962. I first knew them as sophomores struggling to discover who they were and who they wanted to be. I was their young English teacher still learning to teach. They were 16 and I was 30.

As I check into my $200 room on the 14th floor, I'm wondering, "Will I recognize them?" I still remember them as teenagers brimming with optimism. They were thrilled when a young JFK, in 1961, challenged them: "Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country." Unfortunately, in a thousand days, their hope for a better tomorrow was shattered by an assassin's bullet in Dallas. Soon after, the Vietnam War divided them into doves and hawks. The civil rights movement lost its leader and his dream. You know the rest: Watergate, Nixon, Clinton, 9/11. It hasn't been an easy ride for them. As I leave my room, I'm not sure what they will tell me when I ask them: "What's been happening in your life these past 40 years?"

During the reception and banquet, I listen to their stories. Of course, I'm pleased so many have devoted their lives to education at every level. It's every teacher's dream. One even smiles when he tells me, "I've spent 31 years teaching inmates at a state prison." One by one, they share their varied careers. "After I raised my family, I went into social work for about 20 years." "I served in Vietnam and pursued a military career as an Air Force officer during the Cold War." "I'm with the Centers for Disease Control working to control AIDS and tuberculosis." A woman confesses, "You may remember I started out to be a biologist, but I ended up an Episcopal priest." "As a psychotherapist, I'm counseling survivors of 9/11 in New York City." Another gives me his card and proudly tells me, "I'm senior investigator for the New York State Police." One, who opted to live in New England restoring old houses, hands me his campaign bumper sticker "Les is More" and announces, "I'm running for state senator in Maine." How well they have answered JFK's challenge!

Against the din of oldies from the '60s we talk past midnight. Sometimes, with misty eyes, they recall and relive a special moment in high school that made a real difference in their lives. One student, expressing his appreciation for teachers, eloquently captured the spirit and meaning of the reunion for me: "It isn't just learning about literature and grammar and communication skills. You give us part of ourselves we didn't know we had, and we leave you better people than we were when we found you. Thank you."

Sunday morning after our executive buffet breakfast, I say my farewells and reluctantly return to my room to pack my bag. A former student, later my colleague at John Jay, offers to get me on the road to Providence for my return flight back to the world of the present. Before I leave the room, I check my hotel bill on the TV screen and next to my name I read, Amount Owed: 0.00.

Life doesn't get much better than this.

Reach Armando Henriquez Jr. at

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