I am fascinated by the concept of “six degrees of separation.” Developed in 1929, this theory seems much more modern: everyone is supposedly just six steps away from connection to anyone else in the world. It is the phenomenon in which the sister of your husband’s boss is best friends with the guy who sat next to your neighbor’s lab partner in chemistry class – or something like that.
The theory – minus a few degrees – came into play during a recent visit with my niece-in-law, Christina Sell, a North Carolina native. When I mentioned that a former student of mine currently lives in Hendersonville, North Carolina, we eventually determined that Christina, who also once lived in Hendersonville, had been a classmate of my student’s daughter.
There was just one degree of separation years ago when I spoke to a young woman as we waited for a plane at JFK in New York. Her comment that she had just finished her first year at the Naval Academy in Annapolis prompted my response that one of my students, Rob Douglass, was also in that class. It turned out that she and Rob were “best buds,” and we shared good conversation throughout our flight to Germany.
Further from home and longer ago, I struck up a conversation with another American at the German school I was attending. We whittled down our commonalities: Ohio to Piqua to the final realization that I had been her cousin’s dormitory counselor at Otterbein the previous year. Clichéd or not: it has always been small world.
For reasons unclear even to me, I tend to lump “degree” occurrences with chance encounters, such as this one I heard from a colleague. An American soldier and Graham graduate was traveling by train through Germany. His one year in my German class obviously had not prepared him to understand the ladies in his compartment trying to share their lunches with him. Fortunately, a young woman fluent in English rescued him. When he mentioned St. Paris as his hometown, she responded: “Oh, you mean where Graham High School is located?” Of all the soldiers, of all the trains, of all the German girls – the GHS alum was sharing a train compartment with a former German exchange student from Springe.
There are many kinds of chance encounters, but most share the elements of surprise and unexpected circumstance as well as a sensation of time falling away in a brief return to the past. One year my student travelers and I preboarded a flight in Columbus under the “parents with small children” category. As the kids filled their overhead bins, they peppered me with questions, each beginning with “Miss Scott.”
Eventually a nearby passenger asked if I would be the same Miss Scott who had attended Otterbein College. Twenty some years simply melted away, and my students applauded as I tearfully introduced the roommate with whom I had shared dorm counselor duties our junior year.
More surprising and certainly most unexpected was an experience in the early 70’s involving a German professor. Frau Ebert was a young native German who spent just one year teaching at Otterbein. She was a demanding taskmaster, but I overcame my trepidation to appreciate her high expectations. She organized the one-quarter German study program of my senior year, serving as instructor and arranging tours, trips, and cultural events for our group. When we left in December, Frau Ebert did not return with us.
A few years later in a restaurant in Florence, Italy, I spotted Frau Ebert’s familiar face. We immediately reverted to our professor-student roles as she recommended sights in Florence for me to visit. I cherished that brief encounter: Frau Ebert’s example had inspired me to someday organize a European trip for my students.
Social media outlets have become a sort of virtual chance meeting place. I occasionally receive a Facebook friend request from someone with whom I long ago lost contact. There is that same mental spin back to earlier times and pleasure in renewing a faded friendship. My friends list is a fascinating smorgasbord of relatives near and far, high school and college classmates, former colleagues and students.
I have, however, also happened upon individuals from my past through old-fashioned, non-virtual means. Some time ago I learned that a former student, Neil Swonger, had received state recognition for his longtime efforts as agriculture teacher and FFA advisor in Cardington, Ohio. I think my note of congratulations surprised and genuinely pleased him. When he shared in his return letter that he often began his classes with a few words of German, I was similarly surprised and pleased.
A chance encounter can happen even by mistake. As I walked to a friend’s house in Germany, I lost my way and had to stop at another house for directions. The lady at the door recognized me as the American exchange teacher and invited me in for a piece of cake and conversation about the GHS student who had once stayed with her family – Teena Pond Kite.
The possibilities are endless. With relatives and acquaintances spread out all over the place, who knows? The next glance at Facebook or knock on my door may provide another sweet surprise of renewed friendship. And I am fervently searching for the six people who can confirm my lineage to England’s Royal Family. Anything can happen, right?
Shirley Scott, a 1966 graduate of Graham High School, is a native of Champaign County. After receiving degrees in English and German from Otterbein College, she returned to GHS in 1970 where she taught until retiring in 2010. From 1976 to 2001 she coordinated the German Exchange Program with the Otto-Hahn- Gymnasium in Springe.