Laney Taylor is a senior studying political science at Centre College in Danville, Kentucky. She has served as a Bonner Leader, member of the Prichard Committee Student Voice Team, and higher education legislative intern for Congresswoman Susan Davis (CA-53). As a first-generation college student, she is eager to continue amplifying and elevating the voices of our least-heard students.
I fear that my parents’ sacrifices will be swept away by the raging sea of this pandemic. It is a gift to carry the weight of their dreams and worries onto my college campus, even if it makes it that much harder to keep my head above the water. Their sacrifices are composed of parts known and unknown, and are sources of momentum and paralysis. Prayers to be worthy of it all always rest on my lips, their backs, and our shoulders.
My college proudly claims the man who loaned Abraham Lincoln his law books. A nearly brush-off moment spurred Centre to stick a statue of the former president outside our library. His words are etched onto the base: “I’m a success today because I had a friend who believed in me, and I didn’t have the heart to let him down.”
I always find myself substituting the word “family” for “friend” when I cross the statue’s path. As soon as my eyes make the exchange, the weight on my shoulders makes itself known. I call home.
Dad’s words are muffled by the whirring carpet cleaning machine he operates. We meander through metrics of success: grades, square feet of rooms, and projected post-graduate earnings. Pride underscores every word. And in turn, my sense of duty to continually wage war against weekly problem sets is renewed.
When Mom’s on the other end, the conversation shifts. Her clamoring keyboard ricochets as she types up tomorrow’s invoices. A phone call of a potential customer can, and will, stop my thoughts in their tracks. I’ve learned to hurl information at her until the buzzer rings. Sometimes we lob elbows as I explain the need to skip family movie nights in order to hammer out applications. Most days we don’t.
These sounds linger long after the phone calls end. This year, they consume me as I work to find a job. It’s never solely been about finding a position that provides needed experience. It has always been a search to find something that can be justified to those back home.
I went home last summer. My spine stood its ground against walnut in the funeral parlor that held my grandfather’s body. The congregation of kin arrived after clocking out of work. Cargo shorts, dusty boots, and Nike swooshes tracked in stories my parents knew by heart; to me, they were hazy fables. Hums of tall-tales churned with notions of grace and greed and gripes. The choir swelled as my mind drifted towards a memory of holding onto my grandfather’s shoulders for dear life as we rode his motorcycle. When trying to remember whether or not helmets were involved, a second-cousin emerged from the parish.
“Are you Laney?”
I mumbled something that resembled a yes. Instantly, her honey-comb words spilled over: “I follow your life through your mom’s Facebook and you are just an inspiration to us and you are doing great things at Centre and we are all so, so proud of you.”
I returned the compliment by tepidly asking for her name. Soon after she left, the walnut behind our backs trembled from raucous laughter instead of grief. My parents’ focus drifted back to reality while my focus became ensnared by the encounter. The drive home was punctuated by potholes and replaying the words on loop. For the first time, I understood that the weight on my shoulders is made heavier by my own longing to trace the origins of my parents’ sacrifices back to their source.
The weight of making good on these sacrifices has been a constant in my life. But, in this new world we find ourselves in, I realize I have tried to do this in all of the wrong ways. Every late night sketching atomic structures and regurgitating formulas in isolation was always a stepping stone towards gainful employment. Whenever I stumbled out of the library and prayed in front of the statue just before dawn, I always envisioned a single image: two phone calls, merged in holy matrimony, transmitting the news of landing the perfect gig.
I now understand why Lincoln’s ears were deaf to my prayers. He was preparing me for a calling, not a job that looks impressive on LinkedIn.
This unexpected gift of distance from my college campus is holy. It forces me to answer questions, in real-time, about the sacrifices I am willing to make to protect the lives of strangers. An eloquent, thesis-driven essay will never conceal the pain I have the capacity to inflict upon the most vulnerable in my community. My GPA holds no sway in determining who is worthy of fresh fruit on a Tuesday morning.
Every moment of my life is now consumed by a new job. The description asks me to make sure I do all I can to avoid harming everyone’s loved ones. It is not a diversion; it is a needed recalibration. It’s how life is meant to be lived in the first place.
COVID-19 demands that we preserve proximity in a world of social distancing. And now, in these uncharted waters, I finally realize that my family never needed me to secure an impressive job to know they got it right. They just needed me to reduce the distance between us, second-cousin and all, to a mere six feet apart.