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Last December, on a visit home to Landrum, S.C. - the town I grew up in, and fled after high school - I got curious about the Class of 1996.

Who were they? What were they like? How might they compare, say, to my classmates and me?So I called up the school, said I was a former student and asked to speak to the principal. Had I mentioned that I work for a newspaper, his secretary would have taken my number and he'd have returned my call some frosty day in August, no doubt. But principals love to hear from former students, who call mainly to offer to sell hotdogs at ballgames, or to apologize, after all these years, for the senior prank that set the goats loose in the halls.

"This is Mr. Varner," said a voice on the principal's line.

"What have you done with Mr. Holden?" I asked dumbly.

"Beg your pardon?"

"Holden," I said. "Little guy, big ears. He was principal when I graduated in '66."

"Thirty years ago?"

"Uh, yes," I said, "so it was. Anyhow. Did I mention that I was class salutatorian?"

After I explained my reasons for calling ("No, sir, I don't want to sell hotdogs and I had nothing to do with the goats") Varner offered to help. And that is how I ended up in Ms. Vasquez's senior English class, staring at a roomful of bored-to-drooling teenagers and wondering why I get myself into such fixes. I'd be lucky if they didn't beat me up for sport.

"So," I said brightly, after a lame attempt to justify my presence in their lives, "what do you guys do for fun?"

Dead silence. They stared. I started edging toward the door. Finally, a boy in the back row saved my hide, God bless him.

"Nothing," he said, and his classmates nodded. "There's nothing to do in this town."

"Really?" I said, grinning. "What a relief. I'd hate to think things had changed."

It broke the ice, somehow, so the conversation flowed, carried us for an hour to the bell.

"Put us in a column," they called, elbowing out the door.

"Thanks," I said, laughing, "I just might."

Six months later, on the eve of their graduation, here are my thoughts on the 67 seniors (my class had 80) in Landrum High School's Class of 1996.

First, they are young. Much younger than we were, and yet, they're older than we were, too. They don't dress as well as we did, but they drive way better cars.

As a class, they are smarter (about half plan to go on to school) and they're a darn sight better looking than anybody in my year book. They're less imaginative, maybe, but more civilized; they'd never think of putting goats in the halls.

They don't lose sleep, as we did, over Vietnam. Instead, they fear AIDS and wonder if they'll be able to get a decent job.

Their family life may differ from what we knew in the '60s. But they still have families, thank you, struggling or strong: Parents who nag, grandparents who worry, brothers and sisters who drive them crazy.

They've been blessed, as I was, to grow up slowly, in the shadow of a mountain, in the care of good people, in a town where there was nothing to do.

It's a graduation gift called "home," given in small towns and big cities, too. The grads may not appreciate it yet. But they will in 30 years or so.