Larry Efird: A change for hope 

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, August 2, 2022

“Every time in history that men and women have been able to respond to the events of their world as an occasion to change their hearts, an inexhaustible source of energy and new life has been opened, offering hope far beyond the limits of human prediction.” 

— Henri Nouwen

On a random trip to Harris Teeter in Durham, I heard someone call my name as I was searching high and low for some hard taco shells. When I looked up, my frustration turned to delight when I saw a young lady whom I had known when she and her twin sister  were in kindergarten. I had the honor of being their principal once upon a time in Stanly County. That was almost 20 years ago!

Having retired after spending most of my adult life  in education,  some of life’s greatest thrills are when I bump into a former student. Any teacher knows the bond we share with our students is indescribable to those who haven’t had that privilege of spending a year (or more) with a group of kids whose lives touched ours  perhaps even more than ours touched theirs. Once they leave our classrooms,  they remain in our hearts, and we burst with pride when we learn of their accomplishments.

This past June, I did not attend any high school graduations. It was the first time that graduation season rolled around and I almost missed it. Apart from my own daughter finishing up an advanced degree, and two grandchildren “graduating” from middle school and elementary school respectively, my schedule was pretty much free in May and June. I still received a few obligatory  graduation announcements, and my wife and I sent a few cards to those who contacted us with their news, but deep in my soul I knew something felt “off.”

Hearing this young lady unexpectedly  speak my name in a grocery store immediately re-energized me, bringing   back memories  of her special class and how much promise  even a group of kindergarteners held two decades ago. Coming as no surprise, she told me that she would begin her residency the very next day, having recently graduated from medical school at UNC. Her twin sister graduated from Stanford a few years ago, and neither of their mounting accolades caught me off guard one bit.

One  fun part about teaching for a generation — or two — is that you can almost predict how your students’ lives will develop based on their work ethic and their desire to learn at an early age. This proved true in another student’s life whom I taught in high school later on. He recently graduated with a master’s degree in engineering from Duke. He came to America with his parents when he was in the fourth grade having only a few words of English in his pocket. Knowing  this young man changed my life and the way I think.

I have also taught many students who did not graduate from college and who struggled to simply get through high school, but those kids changed me as well. You see, even though I “knew” how to teach, I had to learn how to change.  It’s not easy for a veteran (aka “old”) educator to continually change his or her methods in order to meet the needs of ever changing  generations.

The first group of kids I taught in Georgia in the late 1970s aren’t much younger than I am now. (It’s very hard for me to grapple with that fact.)  My final  group of seniors in 2021 were  a different lot than the first group I had over 40 years ago. The challenges of those two generations are understandably  much different because America is different.

One privilege of growing older is seeing how I have changed and watching my students change as well.  They give me hope when I see those in the world who resist change as if it were a terminal illness.

When I began teaching 44 years ago, soon after I got married, I didn’t even know the difference between a flour tortilla or a corn taco shell. Fortunately, my Texas wife educated me in that regard. But whether it’s knowing where to look for taco shells in the grocery store or how  to look for a new understanding of complex world issues, teaching young minds  how to seek truth  has ironically  changed me  the most. And that gives me hope.

Larry Efird retired from teaching in Kannapolis City Schools.