With the perspective of more than a decade since graduation, two Maryville High School alumni on Friday urged current students to savor their lives.
“Our culture makes it so hard to enjoy the present, because you’re always thinking about what’s next,” said R.D. McClenagan, Class of 2004 and now a pastor at Fellowship Church in Knoxville. “One of the greatest things you can do in your life is just enjoy where you are.
“That doesn’t mean don’t plan for the future, but just be present,” he said, calling it one of the greatest gifts to yourself and the people around you.
McClenagan told the students his most visceral high school memory is from his sophomore year: Sept. 11, 2001, when every classroom had the news of the terrorist attacks on television all day.
“I remember the fear of that day,” he told the students. “It was surreal.”
The day had started as a normal Tuesday. “You just never know what a day might hold,” McClenagan said.
He and Sean Parrish, Class of 2006, delivered Friday’s session in the Centennial Speakers Series, titled “Responding to a Calling.” Alumni have been sharing their wisdom in the series as part of the celebration for the 100th MHS graduating class this spring.
Parrish told the student that because he had worked so hard his first three years of high school, his final semester he had few classes, which gave him time to think about his future.
Looking back Parrish values that time but told the students he wished he had done more while in high school.
Parrish wasn’t a slacker. An A and B student, he worked 30 hours a week at Blackberry Farm, was a Golden Gloves boxer, and participated in debate, the MHS Republican Club, Habitat for Humanity and the STAR Mentor Executive Board.
Yet he told the students, “I really didn’t take advantage of a lot of the activities here,” citing opportunities he missed ranging from the high school newspaper to the theater.
“I always felt like I could have done a little bit more and been a little bit more involved,” Parrish said.
Colleges, military recruiters and employers aren’t looking for just high grades but well-rounded individuals, Parrish said.
“Just get involved in everything,” he told the students. “You don’t know if you’re going to like it or not until you try it.”
One option he missed was the ROTC program, which can help people decide whether the military is a good choice for their future. “There are some great programs, and they will pay for college,” Parrish told the students.
After MHS he attended Samford University before enlisting in the Marines in 2008, planning to serve in the security forces and then work at Oak Ridge. He served nine years on active duty before becoming a civilian intelligence consultant supporting special forces.
Parrish served two tours in Afghanistan between 2010 and 2012. “I used most of my nine lives,” he said. “I had a lot of close calls over there.”
Looking for something less dangerous, he trained in counterintelligence and human intelligence. “That is some James Bond stuff right there. That is the stuff like you see in the movies, drive fast cars, shoot upside down, fly airplanes, boats.”
But, he told the students, the most important part of the job was writing. Every 10 minutes in the field was followed by an hour of writing reports. That’s when he realized the importance of being able to communicate well, to explain the “why” to others. Red ink on his reports reminded him of the red ink from his high school English teachers.
McClenagan told the students, “I wanted to do 1,000 things in my life.” He considered careers ranging from meteorologist to air traffic controller and didn’t consider becoming a pastor until midway through earning his bachelor’s degree in political science from Furman University.
to a calling
After graduating from Dallas Theological Seminary, McClenagan applied for 100 jobs he didn’t get and was considering another field before he was called to become a high school and college pastor in Madison, Wis.
“I spend time with people and help them with their life and try to help them find out where they can find meaning and purpose and value, not in what they do or in what they achieve but in who they are,” he said of his current position as the pastor to young adults, mostly in their 20s and 30s. He joked that his wife, Emily, says, “All you do is have coffee with people.”
Some things don’t change after high school, McClenagan told the teens. Always there will be friend groups and cliques, people trying to prove themselves and others hiding.
“Why am I here? What’s my purpose? Where do I find meaning? I spend most of my time talking to people about that, and I love it,” the pastor said.
A lot of people are hiding behind social media because they don’t know how to speak with people, he told the teens.
As they graduate, they will face pressure to be successful, to do and get certain things.
“You don’t have to be anybody but who God has called you to be,” McClenagan told the teens. “There’s a lot of peace and freedom in that.”
Matt Alexander, a member of the MHS Class of 1987 and president of Blackberry Farm and Blackberry Mountain, also was scheduled to speak but canceled because of illness, organizer Penny Ferguson explained.