Ed Pratt: School friends like a family to me

Last Saturday, I was busy grilling chicken and frying catfish with a group of people I have called friends for at least 40 years.

We were selling the chicken and fish dinners to raise money for our activities and financial assistance we provide students from our high school — McKinley High in Baton Rouge, where I graduated in 1972.

Every now and then, there were frayed nerves. I got on folks’ nerves the most, though. And, to be honest, I’m very good at that without even trying. But, when we have a momentary flare-up, we quickly douse it with jokes or with food and libation at a restaurant.

This is a remarkable thing to remain so close for so long, especially since most of us became closer friends after graduation. We are a mix of the popular crowd, the so-so crowd and the anonymous.

But with this group, everything is less complicated. Folks who never talked to each other at 16 and 17 years old now laugh and have a great time together. I guess it’s called maturity.

Last Sunday, we went to a service together at a local Baptist church. We have probably worshipped at more than 50 churches over the past several years. That’s a lot of praying.

My daughter teases me by calling my classmates and my school a cult. Other friends jokingly ask, “Why y’all just can’t let it go?”

Well, why should we?

This has been a labor of love for four decades. From boiling pig feet, to barbecuing ribs, to holding dances, to crying and holding hands at funerals, this is an extended family that we don’t want to let go.

The sad part now is that we are getting to the stage in our lives where we are saying goodbye to classmates, and that’s really, really tough. And, increasingly, we are seeing our members stricken with debilitating and life-threatening illnesses. We have members who are fighting cancer, strokes, heart disease, diabetes and kidney ailments.

But there is a guarantee in all of this: None of our classmates will be alone in a battle. One or some of us will be there for them.

We have had many good times, too. We have seen our classmates have children and now grandchildren. We have been to weddings, taken cruises together and did considerable damage to buffets across Baton Rouge.

Think about this: We get together at least once a month to talk and plan events. We worship together at a church six times a year. For years, we were doing it once a month.

Remembering our shared pasts, we annually give huge Thanksgiving food baskets to two students from our high school and provide a big financial gift to another student at Christmas. We purposely ask for students who are trying their best in the classroom but are not necessarily “A” students. Maybe our outreach can provide them that boost.

I am the class president, so I get to bring the financial gift to the student. It is probably one of the most rewarding moments in my life. I can think of only two times when there were not tears in the room.

For all of the teasing that I take because of the closeness of my high school class, I wouldn’t give up what we do.

We are planning now for a 60th birthday party sometime next year. I hope all of us are there to celebrate.

Last Sunday at a church service, I sat with a classmate who is battling cancer. She smiled throughout the service, lifting my spirits. Another classmate, who is recovering from a stroke, was feeling especially unwell. At the end of service, we all remained to help her get into a car, and a classmate took her home.

I am happy to be part of this class, and I hope our love fests last until there is no reason to meet again.

Ed Pratt is a former Advocate editor. He is assistant to the chancellor for media relations at Southern University. His email address is epratt1972@yahoo.com.

Follow him on Twitter at @epratt1972.