A good friend and fellow Foxcroft School alumnus asked me to return to our all girls boarding school to attend her own daughter’s graduation. It was an honor to witness this rite of passage for such an extremely gifted and talented young woman. It also gave me the chance to spend time with some old friends and to revisit the place that transformed me from child to young woman. Graduations were held in the most beautiful garden I have ever seen, named after the school’s founder, Miss Charlotte. The last time I walked the gardens of Miss Charlotte, I was wearing a white gown that I had designed myself. I always wanted to b different, and I knew that no one could buy my dress off of a Macy’s rack. My grandfather, a World War II veteran and tailor by trade, cut the pattern for me but believed that my father’s Godmother, a seamstress that he trained, would be better at sewing my dress. I cannot remember where the dress is or where it was left in all of my moves and travels but I remember how proud I was to show off something I created.
Ironically, twenty six years later, I stood in Macy’s looking for a dress for my two year old daughter to wear to the graduation. I had originally chosen a red and blue dress that would match my son’s outfit, but on the way to the cash register, a white cotton dress caught my eye. It was the innocence and simplicity of it, and the subtle touch of colors accented in the shape of butterflies. I wasn’t consciously thinking of my graduation dress, but it was a peasant-style dress with a sash, almost exactly the same design as the dress I wore more than two decades ago.
“How much farther is it?” my son asked as we drove the miles from the town of Middleburg up and down and around the waves of paved roads to the Foxcroft gates. I was instantly transported back to 1983 as if I were “beamed” into my mother’s body. I could hear myself saying as she probably would have said “soon”, and went on telling him stories about the many trips and hours of rib-hurting laughter I enjoyed on the big green and white Foxcroft bus into town. I was filled with pride, anxiety, anticipation and overwhelming gratitude. I also felt the strain of driving for hours and stopping at rest stops for gas, food and a break from the car. I couldn’t help but think of the immense courage and selflessness and faith that a mother must embrace in order to drive her barely fourteen year old, only daughter, hundreds of miles away to live with complete strangers. The tears she must have cried after she helped me unpack my bags and make my bed on the porch of Applegate dormitory. And the pride she felt knowing how hard she worked to steer me down this path. I was so conscious of the inexhaustible determination and sacrifice made to ensure that my future would be saturated with the opportunities she never had. My father did not want me to go away, but my mother refused to have it any other way.
Thirty years later, I am now the driver, the mother, watching my daughter in the rear view mirror. She is only two years old and I am thankful it will be a decade before I have to even consider letting go. But like my own parents, I am willing to do anything and everything in my power to secure a future for Janai and for my son James, that will guarantee them the same or greater opportunities that my Creator has granted me.
As I get closer to the Foxcroft gates, I think of the hundreds of bus rides I travelled down this road. Ernest was our guide, our guardian and I see now, a master at maneuvering those hills! I’m sure it was his spirit that helped me navigate down Foxcroft Road on this beautiful, sunny day. I was about fifteen minutes late and praying that I did not miss my friend Meri’s pride and joy accepting her diploma. I could feel the excitement of the senior class as they sat in a sea of white dresses, surrounded by the beauty of nature and the love of family and friends. Unfortunately I missed hearing one of my favorite and memorable teachers and librarian, Mr. Matthews speaking. I still remember him introducing me to the writer Lorraine Hansberry and ordering a book by Angela Davis because I wanted to do a book report on her and there was nothing in the library that I could use. I remember his support of our recognition of Black History Month and the multicultural weekend. All of the support I received from our headmaster, Mr. Wheeler, my Spanish teacher and advisor, Mr. Kaplan, my dance teacher and English teachers and Ms. Wronsky, who awakened my love of poetry and words. Without my knowledge I arrived on campus as a large new piece of clay, unmolded and ready to embrace my Creator. As I allowed myself to be molded and to give and take, expand and envelope, I transformed into an ever-evolving, strong, stable, beautiful statue; ready to walk out through Miss Charlotte’s Garden into the world of endless possibilities.
As I walked across the lawn with my precious children by my side, the excitement was inexplicable. I couldn’t get to the garden fast enough! I wanted to support Meri, but more importantly I wanted to be a witness to Korama’s walk through the garden – history in the making and a symbol of the hope that awaits her and this world. I remember when Meri was faced with motherhood at a young age and wondered how that would change her life. I felt as proud of Korama as I would have if my own daughter was graduating. I knew in the depth of my soul that I needed to show up for her graduation – not just because she’s the daughter of a good friend; not just because she is a brilliant, creative and beautiful soul; not because she is the first second-generation African American “It” (in Croftie language) to graduate from the school, but more importantly because we as women and sisters need to show up for each other – to be a present partner of our life’s journeys and to support, encourage and love each other – regardless of race, creed or sexual preference.
I wanted my daughter to be in the presence and boundless energy of women who support, love and encourage each other – unconditionally. I wanted my children to meet some of the people from kitchen staff to head of school, who nurtured their barely teenaged mother during some of the most impressionable years of her life. For four years, Foxcroft was my home away from home, a safe haven from the peer pressure and sometimes stressful home environment I experienced in Philadelphia. I was allowed to voice my opinion, to seek knowledge outside of what was available on campus, to develop my natural affinity for leadership, teaching, writing and inspiring.
My mother always told us “never let anyone tell you what you can’t do” and I tested her mantra thoroughly at Foxcroft! And I pass it on for not only the graduating class, but to the future graduates who remain at the school and those yet to come.
I let James and Janai run barefoot on the lawn while I took pictures of Korama and the other graduates all dressed in white. I was in awe at her humility and peace as she stood first in line for her induction into the Cum Laude Honor Society. I screamed and shouted so much that others thought I was related! After I took more pictures, I knelt down to make sure my children were hydrated and had eaten the snacks that I packed for them. Engrossed in my motherly duties, I somehow lost track of what was going on in the ceremony until I heard them announce the Charlotte Haxall Noland Award. Tears filled my eyes as they started to describe the qualities the Head and Faculty of the school felt the recipient must possess in order to be honored with one of Foxcroft’s most prestigious awards. Memories flushed back from years ago when I sat listening to the same description, wondering who it was and secretly hoping my name would get carved onto that beautiful silver bowl. I had forgotten – all of these years of school, work, motherhood, loss, marriage, and life – caused me to forget how others see me. The courage, the strength, the leadership qualities, the respect of my peers and elders, and most of all the hope. I was Head of the Student Body, selected as the Senior Class speaker and presented with numerous honors at graduation. The hope. They believed in me, and they infused their hope in me.
Sometimes I look back and wonder if I let them down. I didn’t become a major player on Wall Street, I didn’t run for Senator or President, but to my children, my family and my friends, I am more than all of those things. I am perfectly and imperfectly me.
I started to cry again as they read the name of the recipient of this year’s CHN Award – Korama Danquah! This time, I opened my mouth and no sound came out. I gasped in shock and amazement. Our names would both be inscribed on the same silver bowl. I felt so honored! What a gift! As I watched Korama yet again, gracefully accept her honor, I had to tell everyone near me that I knew her and her mother. I was so proud of both of them and so filled with joy and exhilaration and hope. Hope for her future and the future of every life she touches.
As the graduation ended, my daughter wandered off down the path onto Miss Charlotte’s garden. Instead of running after her to sweep her up and rescue her from possible thorns or bugs, I let her walk, barefoot in her white dress down the path she chose. I let her smell the flowers and watched as she felt the plants and figured out on her own that she should keep away from the thorns. After a few minutes Janai turned to look for me, and I walked towards her when it seemed she looked to me for guidance.
I’ve heard it said that a mother’s job is to prepare their children for a life without them. By letting go of our young women, we trust the Creator to provide them with the opportunity to grow into greatness and use what they’ve learned to choose the path best suited for them. This I believe is what Miss Charlotte wanted for her girls, what Meri wants for Korama and my hope for my daughter Janai and all of the young women who need our unconditional love and support. Infuse them and entrust them, and let them go out into the world and cultivate their own gardens.