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Experience October/November 2023

First Friends Are Best Friends

Douglas Denton Church


  • A fourth grade class' shared experiences with a fantastic teacher laid the foundation for lifelong friendships.
First Friends Are Best Friends Planets

Jump to:

In 1952, my dad was transferred by his employer to a new city, and along with the move came a promotion. It meant that I was going to start fourth grade in a new school. It turned out that the new school was an old elementary school near the local college campus and, as a result, many of the students were the children of college professors and other professionals who lived in the area.

It was also true that the school was horribly overcrowded. On my first day, I was led to the school auditorium, which was my classroom along with that of 44 other kids. Our teacher was an amazing lady whom all 45 of us came to think of as OUR BEST TEACHER EVER!

A teacher helps build bonds

Mrs. Marylou Heichelbech was engaging and entertaining, and for eight- and nine-year-olds, she was the person who introduced us to a bigger world than we’d ever experienced before. Our field trips and classroom experiences transcended the normal curriculum in so many ways as we were challenged to think big thoughts and to understand our place in the world.

She proclaimed each of us “special” and held out the promise of a future and a career that would be amazing. She placed no limits on our ambitions and encouraged each of us to do more and be more. Our interactions on a daily basis provided not only learning opportunities but also the ability to be creative and thoughtful in ways we hadn’t before.

Combining a fabulous teacher with 45 bright and focused classmates turned out to be the formula for long-lasting relationships. Getting to know 45 classmates might seem a bit of a challenge, but in my memory, it didn’t take long to size up this group and to know the elements of each personality that were endearing or problematic. Playground time, choir rehearsals, preparations for the next acting opportunity, along with regular reading, writing, and arithmetic, gave us all many chances to get to know one another and become true friends.

An email out of the blue

Fast forward 50 years, and one day I received an email from one of my fourth-grade classmates. He was recently retired and had decided that he wanted to see if he could locate all his old school friends. His goal was to get email addresses to create a virtual reunion.

It took nearly a year, but slowly we were able to connect with almost all of our 45 grade school first friends. The virtual reunion spawned an actual monthly gathering at a local pizza shop for those who could make it. We quickly resumed the relationships of years gone by as if we’d never had an interruption.

We also learned that those characteristics we found endearing, annoying, and amazing about each other were still detectable. The special friendships were still special.

Over the ensuing months, we caught up on our life experiences. Vietnam war casualties, marriages and divorces, children, grandchildren, and for a few, great grandchildren. Jobs, hobbies, travels, remarkable accomplishments, health issues. Our ability to share the life paths of 45 close friends and to establish context for our collective lives was, and continues to be, richly rewarding.

Where were you when…

The span of time since we first met in that classroom auditorium 70-plus years ago provides an overwhelming view of our recent history. The JFK assassination, Vietnam, the Nixon resignation, Watergate, the Middle East and Asian wars, the Twin Towers collapse, and so much more.

Finding old friends who’ve also lived through these events, along with the personal triumphs and tragedies that are part of life, has been a remarkable basis for reflection and remembering.

Our emails and gatherings inevitably turn to questions like: “Where were you when….” “What was your reaction about…” “How did you deal with…”

As we’ve become reacquainted with one another, the parallels of our lives are truly astonishing. We find that, for most of us, the nature and nurture elements of growing up in a fairly homogenous neighborhood with common experiences has led us to very similar thoughts about what has happened to the world, our country, our families, and so on.

Sadly, as is always the case, we’ve lost a number of our classmates over the years. The first to die was shot down over North Vietnam during that war. Roger was always up for an adventure, and playground time with him was never boring. What a loss to the world.

We share our grief as we hear of another one of our classmates or a spouse or child who passes on. We understand the inevitability of this, but we lament the fact that they’ve all gone too soon. They’ll be missed and thought of and talked about as long as there are still two of us to meet for pizza.

Smiles, tears, and promises

The monthly gatherings of our classmates have taken on a classic hue for persons of a certain age: We discuss the state of our health first. We have several cancer survivors, a number who are carrying oxygen bottles along with them, a variety of limps, aches, and pains, and more. The litany of pains and aches always leads to a discussion of the remedies that should be pursued. Who knew magnesium spray would help overcome a cramp?

But then we sit down and resume our pre-teen wonderment at the vagaries and vicissitudes of life that have taken us, collectively, around the world and all that’s in between. The smiles and bright eyes that follow these discussions illustrate the value of nostalgia and recollection. The stories of our adventures, our travels, our work, and our play over the years flows out among the laughter and, on occasion, the tears.

It’s a richness that can’t be fully shared with anyone who wasn’t there back in 1952 and who can’t frame the conversation against that chronological backdrop. With pizza and soft drinks at hand, we are always reluctant to call it quits for the day after two plus hours of visiting and, as we leave, there are hugs all around and promises to be there for the next gathering, “the good Lord willing and the creek don’t rise.”

‘Just be my friend’

Having close personal friends is an important aspect of our mental health. Many studies have demonstrated this, from adding years to our lives to improving the quality of our lives and much more. Knowing there’s someone sharing the experiences of life as we grow older helps provide context for the aging process. Having someone you can trust with your innermost thoughts and opinions is also a positive aspect of a healthy mental state.

That someone could be a spouse or partner (the best close friend), or it may be someone totally unrelated who touches you with that special friend status. Whatever the case, when you’ve identified a true friend, that’s a prize to be guarded and cherished.

Camus noted the quality of a friendship this way: “Don’t walk in front of me…I may not follow. Don’t walk behind me…I may not lead. Walk beside me…just be my friend.”

I know there are times when we lead or follow, but I love that sense of doing it together, being in it together, and experiencing all that life brings our way together.

Emerson said, “A friend is a person with whom I may be sincere. Before him, I may think aloud. I am arrived at last in the presence of a man so real and equal, that I may drop even those undermost garments of dissimulation, courtesy, and second thought, which men never put off, and may deal with him with the simplicity and wholeness with which one chemical atom meets another.”

When, as seems today, it’s not uncommon for people to count their true friends on the fingers of one hand, I count myself more than fortunate to have entered that fourth-grade classroom all those years ago and that those first friends are still my true friends.

I like to reflect on the words of Eleanor Roosevelt, who said: “Many people will walk in and out of your life, but only true friends will leave footprints in your heart.”

May those footprints remind me every day of the first and best friends I’ve been lucky to know and love.