The roughly 20 students sitting before me seemed mighty familiar, never mind that I had never seen them before last week.

The roughly 20 students sitting before me seemed mighty familiar, never mind that I had never seen them before last week.

They were students in teacher Gary Enoch's journalism class at Illinois Valley High School in Cave Junction.

Forty years ago this month, I sat in a similar seat as a member of the IVHS senior class of 1969. The students' faces on Thursday reflected the same looks of curiosity mixed with boredom — and a little disdain thrown in for good measure — that many of us would have had back in the day.

It was easy to imagine my old classmates sitting there: Cliff, Robert, Gene, Randy, Tad, Dennis, Gene, Mario, Mary, Dennis, Nick, Libby, Dan, Pat, Barbara, Grayden, Delores, Jon, Tim, Laurel, Kathy, Vicky, Mike, Burl and others. Most I haven't seen since those distant school days. Sadly, there are many I will never see again.

The valley is a beautiful place with plenty of bright folks, but it can be hard on people trying to get a little traction in life. As with most places, their gauntlet includes everything from deadly car crashes to spirit-numbing dope.

Add today's nearly double-digit statewide unemployment rate, no doubt higher in southern Josephine County, and it would be euphemistic to call the future challenging.

Gary is an old friend who is a former journalist, soccer coach and Rogue River fishing guide, jobs he did well. Judging from his teaching style and interaction with his students, he is following suit as an excellent pedagogue, although he was obviously hard up for a guest speaker last week.

But he knew I've been around the journalistic block, having worked on a dozen papers from Anchorage to the California Bay Area. He figured I would be good for some anecdotes from the Arctic to the Sinai, some of which might even be true.

Perhaps I could inspire a few students to achieve their potential, he suggested. Yet I couldn't help but think about old classmates while waiting for the Facebook generation to take their seats.

One of my classmates died in a logging accident shortly after returning from Vietnam. Another was killed in a motorcycle accident. One was found dead along a forest road, the toll for a life of drug and alcohol abuse. Yet another would kill his wife, then commit suicide.

One good friend who worked in insurance died a few years ago of natural causes. His widow brought his ashes back to the valley and scattered them at the Little Falls on the Illinois River.

It's illogical, but each of their deaths made me feel guilty for not being there for them. After all, we had shared experiences — both good and bad — since elementary school in Kerby.

Our small class would produce at least one attorney, engineers, teachers, coaches, bankers, police officers, foresters, insurance agents, motel operators, carpenters and truck drivers, all jobs required for a functioning community.

I didn't include journalist because, although I prefer to think Thomas Jefferson was right about the value of our profession over government, I am sometimes harassed by doubts.

Thursday found me prattling away about the joys of being paid to write about people far more interesting than myself. I told them about Eskimo villager Waldo Bodfish in the Arctic, about an elderly Buddhist monk in Vietnam, about having met the President of the United States.

The students seemed interested, although a few yawns were stifled. But they asked questions indicating they were brighter, better informed and more mature than I was when I wore the clothes of a high school student.

As I was walking out, the school intercom announced how the Cougar wrestlers were faring at the state tournament. Coached by Jay Miller, who was a year behind me but on the same wrestling team at IVHS, they were in fourth place with three wrestlers vying for state championships in their weight classes. Not too shabby.

It struck me that Jay represents a tremendous success story. He is using a sport he loves as a tool to help students realize their potential, a lesson they will carry from the wrestling mat to the broader world.

He is the epitome of a local boy making good.

Reach reporter Paul Fattig at 776-4496 or e-mail him at pfattig@mailtribune.com.