• Joseph F. Berenato

On milestones and memories, and making the most of time


Next month, the two local high schools will each be celebrating milestones. (Courtesy Photo)

Next month, the two local high schools will each be celebrating milestones.


St. Joseph Academy will have the honor of bidding farewell to their first-ever graduating class, and Hammonton High School will be celebrating commencement for its 125th graduating class.


I know the latter, for a fact, because, 25 years ago, my classmates and I—the class of 1996—were members of the school’s 100th graduating class.


I’ve got a medallion to prove it.


Somewhere.


In a safe place, no doubt.


If my math is correct, my column next month is slated to run June 16—the night of Hammonton’s graduation and six days after SJA’s—but I wanted to write about this now, while the seniors were still in the hallowed halls of their respected institutions, because I want them to know something:


Slow down.


Yes, I know you have less than a month to go.


Yes, I know that you have spent the last year-plus of your life in the midst of a pandemic such as the world had not seen in more than 100 years, coping with new ways to learn—and live—that were undreamt of a century ago.


Yes, I know you’re ready to move on to the next phase of your life.


I get it. Believe me, I do. Twenty-five years is not so long a time as to have dulled my memory of the feeling of every molecule in my body screaming to get out and get on with it.


But, slow down.


Take a look around—at your surroundings, at your teachers, at your friends—and remember. Make a concerted effort to remember. Burn it all into your memory.


All too soon, your current surroundings will be your “old” high school and no longer a home away from home.


Your teachers will become the stuff of stories—some funny, some fond, some inspirational and some full of ire—and you may not appreciate the impact that some of them have had on you until years from now.


Your friends will each move on to the next phase of their lives, too. Some you’ll stay close with. Some you won’t see again until your first class reunion (or until the carnival; it could go either way). Some you may never see again.


I’m not so foolish as to think that I can provide advice as to how to handle the coming years, because they will be wildly unpredictable. Take, for example, the last 25 years of my life: I have moved 10 times, been divorced twice and married thrice, became a father and a grandfather, worked at a newspaper, a photography studio, two casinos, owned a store, farmed, taught at two colleges on three campuses (including a maximum-security prison), gotten two degrees, released six books and worked at two different cemeteries before returning to the aforementioned newspaper.


I’m sure my classmates have had similar experiences—or wildly divergent ones; again, life is unpredictable, and each person’s journey is unique.


But we all have that common beginning: high school. We have football games and pep rallies and band competitions and choir concerts and plays (and three months of rehearsals) and bus trips and lunches. We have all these things that we shared and that shaped us and have influenced the course of our lives in ways we still don’t fully comprehend—and maybe never will.


You don’t have much time left there, seniors. Enjoy it. Take what time you have to learn what you can about those around you. You will find that, with each passing class reunion, there are fewer and fewer attendees—not just because they are unavailable, but because they may no longer be with us.


Our class, particularly, seems to have suffered more than its share of losses, far more than I care to remember, most recently Jeremy Belland, with whom I shared a homeroom—and the occasional basketball court—from sixth grade on.


You also have no idea who may become important to you as the years go by.


When I started high school, for instance, there is no way on Earth that you could have convinced 14-year-old me that, 20 years later, I would bond with my geometry teacher every spring over the libretto to Jesus Christ Superstar. Yet, there we were; each year since 2009, Randee Smith and I—and others—delighted in that rock opera every Good Friday.


Nor could you have convinced me how deeply her passing earlier this year would affect me, or how terribly I would miss her.


Like I said: wildly unpredictable.


I envy you, celebrating a milestone and standing on the cusp of the next saga of your life, but don’t rush it before it comes. Appreciate the time you still have in your senior year. Seize the time. Live now, and not for what’s next. Make now always the most precious time, because now will never come again.



Joseph F. Berenato began as a mild-mannered reporter for The Hammonton Gazette in 1997, and returned to that position in 2019 after an 18-year sabbatical, during which he farmed, taught, became a grandfather, dug graves and wrote, but never so prolifically as he has since his return. You can email him at jberenato@hammontongazette.com or find him on social media at @JFBerenato and at www.jfberenato.com.