Opinion: In the name of 'Friends'

Though the fictional have a decided advantage when it comes to last words, it being so much easier to enunciate a really compelling statement when you are the author describing the dying and not the person actually doing it, I must confess, never...

Though the fictional have a decided advantage when it comes to last words, it being so much easier to enunciate a really compelling statement when you are the author describing the dying and not the person actually doing it, I must confess, nevertheless, to having the highest regard for those of Mr. Chips, the English master of an all-boys school, brought to life by novelist James Hilton.

As younger members of the faculty assembled around his bedside, Chips, through the gathering fog of fading mortality, caught a statement from one of them that he could not allow to stand and offered a correction:

"What -- was that -- um -- you were saying -- about me -- just now? ... I thought I heard you -- one of you -- saying it was a pity -- umph -- a pity I never had -- any But I have, you know....I have...."

The others smiled without answering, and after a pause Chips began a faint and palpitating chuckle.

"Yes -- umph -- I have. Thousands of 'em ... thousands of 'em ... and all boys."


I have always had a fascination with the great English boarding schools of centuries past and still today in a much diminished stature. They provided an excellent education, both in classical academics and character formation. But they also provided something more, a connection, a sense of belonging to something greater than yourself. While these had a negative side -- solidifying and extending social stratification into the next generation -- they nonetheless created a transgenerational and lifelong attachment.

Cyril Connolly aside, it is very much true that, throughout his life, one Eton man would always know another, befriending him, exchanging the stories and shared experiences of their alma mater back when that phrase still meant more than just one more indecipherable Latin phrase. When it still meant "nourishing mother."

I offer all this because I have always wanted to be part of something like that, some educational experience that transcends the simple mechanics of school. Unlike the great English boarding schools, American schools do not generally have this greater meaning institutionalized within their walls. They do come at times but usually are unexpected, like the breaching of a whale in an otherwise placid sea.

And so it was indeed unexpected when one surfaced two Saturday evenings ago at the conclusion of the final performance of the Show Choir Dinner Theater. All right, it wasn't really all that unexpected as it happens quite frequently with show choir and show pit and the tech crew but there was something subtly different that made it even more meaningful for a number of people. Every year at the end of the final show choir performance -- and, yes, at other times such as before shows as well -- the group gathers and sings a song: "Friends" by Michael W. Smith, the chorus for which goes: "And friends are friends forever If the lord's the lord of them And a friend will not say never 'cause the welcome will not end Though it's hard to let you go In the father's hands we know That a lifetime's not too long to live as friends." And so the show choir, show pit and tech crew recapture before every show that sense of something greater than each student, something that lingers from generation to generation of show choir members, from the first senior members in 1984 to Jason Kaemingk, who helped inspire the group's name and began the tradition of singing "Friends" in 1995, to this year's most novice freshman. And when the song is finished, they pray. One member student, without direction from sponsors, offers up a prayer for the group.

Now if this is all standard fare for the show choir, why bring it up now? I do it because something interesting happened at the final performance two Saturday evenings ago. As the students belted out the last performance set and the show officially ended, the crowd bolted from its standing ovation, grabbing coats and small children so they could get quickly to their cars in the blizzard conditions that had clogged streets and buried automobiles. As they did so, the show choir, show pit, and tech crew gathered leisurely on stage, encircled one another shoulder to shoulder on stage and began their quiet song.

After the first few words, the spectators slowed their progression to the doors and finally halted altogether, turned back to the stage, and watched. The entire Corn Palace floor became silent and unmoving, listening to a song barely audible off the stage and a prayer tearfully offered.

These students had captured something everyone wants: a sense of belonging, come what may. Winged girls, athletic geared boys, discretely black-clad tech crew and even a bit sinister appearing show pit members stood as one, pledging themselves to one another and offering their friendship to God, in the last words of the 2008-09 group.

Even after a 2.5-hour program and the fully realized threat of a blizzard outside, the crowd stood and observed, certainly in admiration, perhaps in wonder, and probably a bit in envy.

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