In Praise of Bridge Builders

Never to forget where we came from and always praise the bridges that carried us over.

Fannie Lou Hammer (1917-1977; Civil Rights Crusader)

My life has been filled with people who have helped me succeed. People who have helped carry me over. I like to think of them–collectively–as my bridge builders.

BRIDGE BUILDERS–MY PARENTS AND MY SIBLINGS.

My parents, of course, started building the bridge upon which I still trod. They gave me life and empowered me to live mine to the fullest. They provided forever-tools–always to use, never to lose, ever. As a coal miner, my dad lived the life that he worked, and he preached it. As a preacher, my mother lived the life that she preached, and she worked it. They taught me to work hard at and see to the finish anything and everything that I started, fully believing that all work has dignity. They taught me the difference between working for a living and working for love. They taught me to appreciate, value, and celebrate diversity. They taught me to embrace and accept everyone along my way. And, yes, they taught me that with an education I could be whatever I wanted to be and go wherever I wanted to go.

My five brothers and sisters played critical roles, too, in constructing the bridge that has served me so well. Since they were older, I didn’t always understand the full dimensions of their lives: restaurateur; sales person and caregiver extraordinaire; medical technologist; mechanic; and post mistress. Yet, whatever they were doing always impressed me and sent me chasing my own dreams.

BRIDGE BUILDERS–MY EDUCATORS AND MY BENEFACTORS.

Growing up in the coal fields of Southern West Virginia, I was blessed to have some of the best educators in the world. They knew the subjects that they taught, and they taught those subjects with passion. Perhaps more important, they loved their students and took personal interest in us. They were living witnesses: we could transform our lives through education just as education had transformed their lives.

My third grade teacher at Shady Spring Elementary School stretched my bridge by introducing me to Robert Frost’s poetry. I fell in love–and remain in love–with poetry, and Frost remains my favorite poet. Bridge work continued as other teachers pulled me toward Scripps National Spelling Bee Competitions and Voice of Democracy Competitions. And I will always remember the teacher who got me hooked on the parts of speech and sentence diagramming. She knew that she had unleashed a wild child in love with the power of language.

My teachers at Shady Spring High School lengthened and strengthened the bridge still more. One showed me that powerful writing and hefty revision go hand in hand. Another helped me realize that typing and bookkeeping were solid backup skills that could open other career paths if my dream of going to college had to be deferred. And what a critical expansion my high school biology teacher provided by welcoming me and several other students to crash his desk every day at lunch, day after day, week after week, semester after semester, from our sophomore year all the way through graduation. Those lunch-time conversations were far more important than any lunch before or since. He gave us his time. He gave us himself.

As high school graduation approached and going to college became a reality, benefactors stepped up to help build my bridge. My parents and siblings didn’t have a lot to give, but what they had, they gave. Similarly, the citizens of my hometown set up a scholarship fund to help college-bound students buy freshman-year textbooks. I was one of the first recipients. That $150 check meant my future to me.

My professors at Alderson-Broaddus University added wonderfully rich dimensions to the bridge. Most of them lived on campus–on faculty row–and our classes were so small that we were often their dinner guests. They helped me see the human side of the presumed academic ivory tower that years later I would strive to model. My advisor, though in her fifties, finished her doctoral degree while I studied under her and served as her Work Study. She gave me an appreciation of lifelong learning. Fortunately, too, benefactors made it possible for my life bridge to continue growing. Their endowed scholarships helped me fulfill my dream of becoming a college English professor.

As a graduate student at the University of South Carolina, phenomenal educators continued to enrich my life and build my bridge. I’m thinking of my advisor who turned me on to textual bibliography. Another professor introduced me to Mary E. Wilkins Freeman–the ongoing focal point of my scholarly research from then until now. I’m recalling the professor who lectured, literary work in hand and not a lecture note in sight, with fiery passion and exultant joy. He allowed himself to be slain in the intellectual moment just as my mother always allowed herself to be slain in the spiritual moment. Through his teaching, I saw the best of both worlds–his and my mother’s. I had a vision of the educator that I would strive to be.

BRIDGE BUILDERS–MY COLLEAGUES AND MY FRIENDS.

Just as I was blessed to have bridge builders throughout my educational life, so too have I been blessed to have them in my professional and personal life.

I would not be where I am today had it not been for my supervisor at the former Department of Health, Education, and Welfare. When I was a summer intern in his Division of Two-Year Colleges, he was the one who suggested that the Library of Congress might be the perfect place for me as an editor. He was the one who nudged me to Capitol Hill to submit an employment application.

Without his influence, I would never have had a twenty-five year career at the world’s premier research library.

During that career, I worked with the best professionals in the federal sector. They were awesome bridge builders for me and countless others. One–a pioneer in library automation, at a time when computers were still called machines–helped me move up from being an editor in the MARC Project to being an editor in the NUCPP-Pre-1955 Imprints, the bibliographic wonder of the world. Another made me believe that information is never lost: painstaking and dogged research can always lead to its discovery. Another made me believe that I had it in me to be the Training Coordinator for the United States Copyright Office. Then he led me from there to being the Director of the Library’s Internship Program and from there to being Special Assistant for Human Resources, giving HR advice to department heads throughout the Library as well as to two Librarians of Congress.

After I crossed the bridge from the library side to the academic side at Lord Fairfax Community College, I was blessed to have still more bridge builders in my life. The biggest, perhaps, was the selection committee that recommended hiring me as a professor of English, thereby making my third-grade dream come true. Later, another bridge builder challenged me to teach dynamic 8-hour classes on Fridays and Saturdays. Another graciously asked me to co-advise the Alpha Beta Omega Chapter of Phi Theta Kappa–the International Honor Society of the Two-Year College. Other bridge builders challenged me to teach without walls: Virtual Learning. Still another, without books: free Open Educational Resources personally curated and designed by me. Then there was the seminal opportunity to co-author and edit the college’s report for LFCC’s Reaffirmation of Accreditation, Southern Association of Colleges and Schools (SACS). Add to that team teaching Leadership Honors Seminars and English Honors Seminars and co-presenting at conferences with mathematicians, artists, and psychologists. And I will always remember the growth opportunity afforded by co-chairing the Developmental English Curriculum Team charged with redesigning Developmental English across the Virginia Community College System. Other bridge builders–colleagues, deans, vice-presidents, and presidents–championed me so successfully that, from time to time, I was in the limelight at the college, state, and national levels.

Fortunately, close friends have been there with me throughout my crossing–giving the support that only friends can provide. The “You can do this” pep talks! The “You did it” celebrations. The listening. The sharing. The “Here’s a tissue” followed by “Better now?” The emailing. “What? You kept them all? Guinness Book of World Records? No way!” The texting. The calling. The nothingness. The silliness. The everything-ness. All the things that nurturing friends do…just because that’s what friends do.

BRIDGE BUILDER–MY SOULMATE.

Words cannot describe one of the most important bridge builders in my life: my soulmate, my late partner. Allen journeyed with me across a large expanse of my bridge, quietly adding key components along the way. Gourmet cooking. Gardening. Hiking. Biking. Together we made the journey from who I was before, to who I am now. Together we witnessed the power and depth of love through surrender. Together our hands clasped tightly one another’s, one last time, as he crossed his own bridge into eternity.

BRIDGE BUILDERS–MY GOLDEN YEARS AND BEYOND.

Today, I am in awe. I am standing on the bridge that others built for me, still strong after seven decades. I am standing on the bridge that others will continue to build for me, including my executors who will pay my bridge forward by strengthening the endowed scholarships that Allen and I envisioned and established.

Looking back, the distance from where I started–the coal fields of Southern West Virginia–to where I am today–the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia–is not that far: fewer than 300 miles. But the joys and triumphs that I have experienced while journeying across the bridge exceed by far the wildest dreams of my wild imagination.

Looking ahead toward my Golden Years–whatever they are; whatever they bring–I step forth confidently. My bridge is strong. My bridge is sturdy. My bridge will endure. Those who built my bridge made it according to the best specs.

Looking ahead further still to that time when I will cross from my earthly bridge into the Great Beyond–whatever it is; whatever it brings–I hope that all of my bridge builders will be there to welcome me. My Soulmate/Partner. My Colleagues. My Friends. My Educators. My Siblings. My Parents.

What a great gettin’ up morning that will be as I rejoice in singing the praises of my bridge builders, the ones who carried me over.

8 thoughts on “In Praise of Bridge Builders

  1. I’m sure you did this on purpose, but you have a brilliant back and forth in your writing that mimics bridges and the back and forth, crossing nature of them (i.e. “As a coal miner, my dad lived the life that he worked, and he preached it. As a preacher, my mother lived the life that she preached, and she worked it,” “we could transform our lives through education just as education had transformed their lives,” and “They knew the subjects that they taught, and they taught those subjects with passion.”). Having that layer in your words deepens the message for me.

    What a beautiful reflection post–I am struck by your humility in this as you focus on others and not on the dedication you put forth as well. Many may have helped to build the bridge, but you are the one who crossed it and started a new bridge. :-)

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    • Thank you so much for your observation that my writing mimics the back and forth nature of a bridge. I didn’t start the post with that structure in mind, but I noticed it somewhere along the way, liked it, and decided to keep at it!

      I wanted the focus to be entirely on others, for they are the ones who built the bridge that carried me over. Without their foundations, my efforts alone would never have brought me this far.

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  2. I have a friend. We exchange frequent emails through the aether, sharing our opinions on recipes, punctuation, the weather, and sisters. Even if this were all we did, I would count him first among friends and influences.

    Where he rises above the rest, however, and has from the beginning, is that he accepts, without comment, all of my flights of fantasy, what I think of as my nonsense. It amuses me to write that way and I hope it amuses him, but he rarely says.

    Some of what I write to him ends up in essays, short stories, and my never-ending novel. I’ve tried diaries and journals, but nothing gives me as much creative satisfaction as writing to the nonjudgmental muse at the end of my sky bridge.

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    • As a professor of English, I have a tendency to read not only between the lines but also between the spaces! And that may be exactly what I’m doing here, but it seems to me that you and your friend have a special relationship that many friends–perhaps most–never achieve.

      I’m hoping that your friend follows my blog, but in case he does not, you might want to share the link with him. He will certainly value your comment, and, who knows: he might even be entertained my the blog itself!

      Thanks so much for sharing!

      Like

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