What Robert Gehrke learned while watching his son grow up and graduate high school during the pandemic

This year’s pandemic graduates have learned life lessons that couldn’t have been taught in schools, Robert Gehrke writes.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Robert Gehrke.

When my kid Charlie was young he had an imaginary friend — two actually. They were Good Chuck and Bad Chuck. Bad Chuck was responsible for anything that got broken or spilled in the house. Both Chucks, Charlie said, were also sons of Mitt Romney.

Charlie also had landed a steady job at “City Home Depot City.” It went well until one day he sighed and reported that his “worker man” fired him for missing work once he started preschool.

So his educational path was not without some early obstacles.

But they were nothing like what he and thousands of other students graduating this week came up against over the last few years. Who could have seen a global pandemic disrupting pretty much every social and educational aspect of high school?

These last few years have been a test of resilience, improvisation and perseverance unlike any we’ve ever seen. Anyone who has made it through, or is on track to make it through, should be proud of their achievement.

And the teachers forced to adapt and confront the pandemic deserve immense gratitude.

Life has a way of teaching lessons you can’t learn anywhere else. So as my son and the rest of the Class of 2022 receives their diplomas this week, I wanted to share some of those lessons — big and small — that I have learned while watching Charlie navigate his way to this milestone.

Find your people

No matter who you are, there are people out there who will support you, nurture you and will help you through tricky times without any expectations or demands. They could be friends or family. Or they could be people like Charlie’s preschool teacher Giffi. Or his dear, departed culture mentors, Glen and Mary. Or his all-purpose guru, Jonathan.

When you are lucky enough to find those people, nurture those relationships and keep them close. They will provide a solid foundation for your life and, hopefully, their best qualities — like empathy, curiosity, compassion or whatever — will rub off and make you a better person. The kind of person who will be able to repay the debt by extending the same level of support to others down the road.

New challenges can be scary, but it’s how you grow

When he turned 16, Charlie met the love of his life thus far — a 1987 BMW convertible that for no discernible reason had the signature of Abraham Lincoln stenciled across the top of the windshield.

In the time since he has managed to keep “Abe” running, more or less. It’s been a struggle with a lot of frustration, sweat, scraped knuckles and every time one thing gets fixed, something else breaks, as 35-year-old vehicles are prone to do.

(Photo courtesy Natalie Haws) • Charlie Gehrke, with the love of his life, "Abe," is one of thousands of Utah high schoolers graduating this week. It has been a wild ride for these grads with lots of lessons to be learned, writes is dad.

But there is something to be said for learning the value of patience, perseverance, problem-solving and sweat. Not to mention an expansive vocabulary of swear words. And maybe most importantly, when to ask for help.

When in doubt, read the factory service manual

That’s what it’s there for.

A conversation is never a waste of time

Charlie, unlike me, is a chatterbox. He will strike up a conversation with just about anyone. And you know what? People can be pretty interesting. Maybe it’s just a few words in passing, but maybe you can meet people and learn things that will enrich your lives.

Don’t live in your phone

When he was 3, Charlie got up in the middle of the night and got hold of my BlackBerry to try to play Brick Breaker. Instead, he called state Rep. Greg Hughes. Another time he called the governor’s spokeswoman. Another time he called 911. Fast forward 15 years, we could all learn when we need to put down the phone. There’s nothing inside there more important than what is outside.

Geckos don’t bite

Except when they do.

“Decide what to be and go be it”

The Avett Brothers were one of Charlie’s first concerts and that lyric sums up one of the more important things he has taught me. Inevitably, people will try to push you toward things that just aren’t the right fit. When Charlie was young I signed him up for baseball and basketball. Later he tried stuff like wrestling and drama.

But when he started tinkering with Abe, Charlie found his place. I’ve never been a gearhead, so it was an adjustment, but it’s what he loves and, turns out, he’s good at it and it makes him happy (most of the time).

The lesson is others don’t get to choose for you. So get out there, Class of 2022, and find your passion, draw on your own life lessons and let’s make this world a better place.

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