This week one of my old UWC 87 classmates passed away in Germany, where he lived and worked for the European Central Bank. His smile was wide and true and his laugh infectious. There was nothing false about the Ivan I remember.
Ivan Alves was one of the first – and friendliest – faces I met when I arrived at the Albuquerque Airport in August of 1985. We both had landed around the same time and had to wait for the bus from the school to arrive. He was from Bolivia, and we were both chosen to attend United World College of the American West in Montezuma, New Mexico.
He helped me get through lower level physics and higher level chemistry as a sometimes-frustrated tutor to this “stupid American.” He would say, “I don’t understand how you were not taught this yet in your schools.” He introduced me to aguardiente (and I still don’t understand how that got smuggled onto campus).
We were 100 teenagers per class in a 2-year program, so 200 total from dozens and dozens of different countries. Most of us were all aged 16-18 and thrown into a great crazy mixing bowl of the unknown. We knew nobody and were far from home. This was before cellphones and the internet. Communication with our families was limited to letters and the occasional phone call to the dorm’s pay phone. The faculty and students on campus were our new family. We grew bonds those two years that were amazing. Even then, we parted ways and until the internet blossomed most had limited contact. Our memories were locked in photo albums and the occasional letter or call.
Then Facebook came along. Many of us re-connected on Facebook and at least during birthdays and holidays we sent messages. One classmate took his life and we came together to remember him online. One of our first years (Andres in the class below us) died in a gas explosion in 2014 in Harlem, New York City and we again came together to talk about old times.
This time it’s a little different. Yes we started by remembering Ivan on Facebook, but then a classmate created a WhatsApp group. What started as a handful of members has grown to over 50 of the original 100 classmates. I don’t know how long this is going to last, but every day there are a handful of photos and posts to the group.
My oldest son asked me “What the heck do you guys talk about?” It’s normal everyday stuff: photos of kids and our dinners, and of course memories from our New Mexico days. We talk a little bit about current events and politics. We let the group know when we’re traveling and try to meet up when we can.
I don’t know how long this group chat will last, but I’m happy we’re doing it now. The ties we made almost 30 years ago are still strong, despite the time and distance. I am so sad that our Ivan is gone, but one good thing has come this month: our renewed contacts with old classmates. We’ve all changed and grown, but we share the common bonds of that teenage experience of being thrown together in the New Mexico mountains for two years.
People always say life is short, to not waste time and always tell the ones you love how important they are to you. It’s a cliche. But it’s a shame that something like this has to happen to bring people together.