Larry Efird: Off to school — and to the world
Published 12:00 am Tuesday, September 6, 2022
I recently helped our daughter move to Washington, D.C., to embark on a new journey in her life. Even though she’s a grown woman, I still have questions and fears for her, the same as all parents do whenever a new school year begins. “Will she be safe? Will she make some good friends? Will she be happy?” The list of questions a parent might ask are, of course, endless. And to make matters worse, there are no guaranteed answers.
One consolation I do have as a father of a grown child is that I know my daughter is pursuing what she loves. Having recently completed a doctorate in public health, she’s taken a position to do research for two years at The Racial Justice Institute at Georgetown University. This opportunity is the culmination of over a decade of passionate preparation.
However, this noble purpose has taken her into some precarious places that no father I know would want his grown daughter to go, one being the inner city of Pasadena, California, where she felt called to teach in a school nestled in a gang-infested neighborhood. Up until that time, the only thing I knew about Pasadena was the Rose Bowl and New Year’s Day celebrations. Ignorance is bliss–sometimes.
The night she told my wife and me about her plans to move all the way across the country, we had been enjoying the security of our village mill house while sitting on a dark front porch and listening to the peaceful sounds of the summer night. When we went inside after an hour or two, I noticed I had black paint under my fingernails. It had come from my attempts to relieve anxiety while scratching the arms of the black rocking chair I was seated in, in an attempt to listen objectively and not try to talk her out of following her heart’s desire.
I’ll never forget the day she called one of her brothers a few months later to tell him she was driving a beaten up Suburban around notorious California freeways to take a group of kids to a public swimming pool for the first time. She told him, “But just don’t tell Dad.” Her older brother responded paternally as well, saying, “To be honest, I’d rather not know that fact either!”
She also didn’t let that sense of vulnerability or getting out of “her parents’ comfort zone” stop her from living in a challenging neighborhood in Charlotte for a few years so she “could make a difference.” To put this in perspective, some of her best college friends — male and female — would not visit her because of their safety concerns.
She had a job teaching kindergarten in Kannapolis, but commuted from Charlotte each day. When she was speaking at our provincial church one Sunday morning about non-traditional ways of serving the needs of humanity, she tried to assure the wary congregation that she felt relatively safe most of the time, only hearing gunshots “about once a month.” If you’ve ever been confused as to laugh or to cry at the same time, hearing that comment might qualify as that moment.
As I left my daughter alone in the city of Washington and boarded an Amtrak train to return to North Carolina, I thought about another girl from the Piedmont who felt Washington was where she needed to be following her formal education. That would be Elizabeth Dole, a former North Carolina senator and president of the American Red Cross. If I knew Mrs. Dole personally, I would ask her if she had any words of wisdom for a thirty-something, single female moving to the nation’s capital with all its history, glamor, crime and conflict.
I’m grateful that our daughter has the spunk, the graciousness, and the vision of Elizabeth Dole, one who never outgrew her hometown roots while blossoming into a world changer in Washington, D.C. Like all children, she left her parents and went off to school one day, and fortunately, later on, went off to the world.
When you find yourself watching your own children going off to school — or to the world at large — you might do well to remember Elizabeth Dole. And then please say a prayer for my daughter. And maybe for me too.
Larry Efird retired from teaching in Kannapolis City Schools.