written by Somerlyn Oxendine, serving serving on the Henry Wilson Elementary School team generously supported by Dartmouth-Hitchcock
At a young age, my grandfather instilled in me the message that whatever you conceive and believe, you can achieve. As a result, I have had the tremendous privilege of believing that with hard work, persistence, and a positive attitude, I could conquer any obstacle I encountered.
My grandfather is my hero. He demolished systematic barriers to become the first Native American to obtain Naval Flight Wings. As a pilot, during World War II, he was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross after rescuing a downed airman in the Pacific. After his military career, he served as the Chief of Public Affairs at the Bureau of Indian Affairs.
Growing up, my family attended the annual “Lumbee Homecoming” festivities. My grandfather would guide my family around Pembroke, North Carolina and tell us stories about the history of our tribe. As we walked with him, strangers would flock to us and recall watching my grandfather fly planes over their neighborhoods as schoolchildren. It was evident that he served as a tremendous source of inspiration to not only my family but the people in his community. While it is often thought that unveiling the man behind the curtain can be disappointing, my grandfather maintained a larger than life aura by entertaining us with extraordinary stories and exuding kindness to everyone we encountered.
When I was 15, I learned that, at the age of 88, my grandfather had passed away. While the news was difficult to digest, his funeral reinforced the significant impact he had made on the lives of others. As I struggled to recite John Gillespie’s poem High Flight, it was evident that he had “…topped the wind-swept heights with easy grace” and “…done a hundred things you have not dreamed of…” Though his body was no longer present, his legacy was palpable. Reflecting on the experience, I decided to strive to follow in my grandfather’s footsteps and seek to live my life grounded in service. Staying in touch with these values helped give me the confidence to temporarily defer attending law school and instead commit to a year of service.
During City Year’s Red Jacket Ceremony, it was only fitting to dedicate the signature uniform piece to my grandfather, as throughout this year I hope to empower my students to believe that they can accomplish any goal they set their mind to. Throughout the past two months, I’ve been tremendously inspired by my students’ resilience, creativity, and ambition and I look forward to the adventures that await me.
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