What started as a teacher-student relationship in 1968 turned into a lifelong friendship that broke through boundaries of age, distance and race.
â€œShe didnâ€™t look at color when she taught â€“ she looked at what it was she had to offer and what she could do for kids,â€ said Eldrenna Durham of her former teacher, Linda Harrill-Rudisill, a Lincolnton resident.
The two first met when Harrill-Rudisill taught Durham health her seventh-grade year at Wray Junior High School in Gastonia.
â€œLittle did I know this woman would change my life forever,â€ Durham said.
Harrill-Rudisill took an active interest in Durham from the very beginning.
â€œWeâ€™ve just admired her so much,â€ Harrill-Rudisill said. â€œItâ€™s that self-assured healthy ego and that passion to learn.â€
Durham credits Harrill-Rudisillâ€™s encouragement for her success.
â€œShe never relented in her positive praise and insistence that I would be a teacher,â€ she said.
Despite coming from poverty, Durham earned two masters degrees and a doctorate, traveled the world, became an award-winning educator and recently gained the position of director of school administration and support services for Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools.
Achieving all this wasnâ€™t easy, especially after Durham became pregnant in high school and was forced to withdraw.
â€œI say she took a sabbatical to take care of precious business,â€ Harrill-Rudisill said.
After giving birth at 17, Durham re-entered high school.
â€œI was determined I was going to college,â€ Durham said.
â€œAnd I was determined she was going to college,â€ Harrill-Rudisill added.
Durham did go to college while working a full-time job and raising her son. Harrill-Rudisill supported her wholeheartedly, both emotionally and, occasionally, financially.
Over the years, Durham has worked in Japan, Korea and Germany (where as a middle school principal on a United States military base, she took a low-performing school and changed it into a model school).
She chose to retire early in order to be closer to her son and grandchild. Harrill-Rudisill couldnâ€™t be happier about her decision to return to North Carolina.
â€œIâ€™m absolutely thrilled to have her home and close,â€ Harrill-Rudisill said.
Despite living on opposite sides of the world for much of their friendship, Durham and Harrill-Rudisill have stayed close through letters and occasional visits.
Durham flew home from Germany to go to Harrill-Rudisillâ€™s retirement party and Harrill-Rudisill returned the favor years later.
The two now have plans to give motivational speeches about the importance of education. Durham is the perfect example of what hard work can achieve.
â€œAs a child, I read books, and the more I read, the more I realized I didnâ€™t have to be poor forever,â€ she said. â€œAnd I used my education as my escape.â€
Durham has always had high expectations for herself, and she also has high expectations for her friends. Harrill-Rudisill already knows the things that will be required of her.
â€œIâ€™ve got to read, â€˜The World is Flat.â€™ Iâ€™ve got to become computer literate,â€ she said. â€œIâ€™ve got a lot to do.â€
Whether or not she completes everything on that to-do list, their friendship will surely endure.
â€œWe have embraced diversity on a level a lot of people say they do, but we have truly embraced it,â€ Durham said.
by Sarah Grano