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Larry Efird: Preserving traditional values

By Larry Efird

Last month, my wife and I celebrated our 40th wedding anniversary.   I was telling one of my classes that our wedding was on the exact same day we graduated from college.

Although they thought the timing  of our wedding day was unusual, the length of our marriage struck them as being  even more unusual. One student spoke up and said, “Wow! Ya’ll have been married for forty years! That’s a really long time.” Thinking aloud, she also added, “I hope our generation will start that tradition again.”

I smiled and thanked her for her compliment, but it amused and saddened me at the same time to think that she thought the “tradition” of marriage had changed. But actually, she was correct in her assessment and observation because most of her friends can’t imagine people staying married for 20 years or longer. To them, it hardly seems  possible for that to happen anymore. 

In a recent discussion about a book we’ve been reading as a  class, I asked the students to write a brief essay  about what they would consider to be the most important value for a person to have. They had to begin by defining the word “value” and then explaining  why that value was so important. In addition, they also had to explain from whom or what they learned their values and their sense of right and wrong. We  had been   discussing generic values for several days, based on themes we had discovered in our reading. Despite  all of  our group discussions, I was still curious to see what they would come up with on their own when they tried to put their abstract thoughts into words.

The most common response was “family,” but several other significant responses were “faith, money, freedom, trust, loyalty, life, respect, honesty, friendship,  and compassion.” Being impressed with their sincerity, along with their maturity,  they agreed — for the most part — that a value is something a person believes in or feels is important.  One student went on to say “a value is something that represents who you are as a person.” I couldn’t have said it better myself.

On Memorial Day, I happened to come across an old poem and hymn by James Russell Lowell, “Once to Every Man and Nation.” I was familiar with the tune, having heard it in church numerous times as a child, but a particular verse I had never noticed before grabbed my attention:

New occasions teach new duties,

Time makes ancient good uncouth,

They must upward still and onward,

Who would keep abreast of truth.

I also found a slightly altered version that rephrased one of the lines:  “Ancient values test our youth.” I don’t know who changed the words, or when, but as  a teacher, I couldn’t help but ponder those thoughts. With graduation season upon us, I thought the message  was perfectly apropos for any speaker who would be making commencement addresses around the country this weekend.

What I consider to be an “ancient value” as opposed to someone else’s assessment of that term might be debatable, and even controversial. What one generation regards as a value oftentimes finds itself to be an endangered species in a succeeding generation. Yes, many of our  values are the same, but the way one generation defines a value can easily be redefined by contemporary culture. And commitments to values may change even if the values themselves do not.

After overdosing on  the news or  barely surviving the last month of school, which requires every ounce of enthusiasm and stamina a teacher can muster, I’m often prone to discouragement at what I perceive the world has come to as I imagine that all our nation’s core values are slowing  disappearing.

Such was the case this spring, but then one of our Hispanic students, who has lived in America for only seven years, was accepted with a full scholarship to Duke. Having had the honor of teaching him, I couldn’t help but give him a big hug and walk away with tears of joy in my eyes. 

All of us, especially teachers, can rejoice that the current generation of graduates is not having to  restart” traditional values. They are simply doing their part in keeping them alive for generations to come.

Larry Efird teaches at A.L. Brown High School in Kannapolis.

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