It was certainly a chance encounter when I bumped into a contractor named Vince Freeman as I opened my door. Vince and I got to talking.
He soon mentioned his sister, Cassandra – there was emotion in his eyes. Vince went to his truck, then gave me a DVD with a 36-minute audio only interview of Cassandra “Sandy” Freeman.
“You should listen,” he said.
Sandy Freeman’s boyfriend, Keith Nickens, did the interview. He began by asking about the most important lesson she’d learned in life. Sandy was 41.
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“To love everyone,” Sandy said. “And that wasn’t a lesson that was very easy to learn. People you wouldn’t ordinarily love. People that do bad things in the world.”
There are other lessons, she said. “Do you want to hear about those?”
Sandy’s voice is resonant and captivating. You can hear when she smiles.
Keith: “Do you have any regrets in life?”
“No,” Sandy answered. “I can’t say that I do. I thought I might regret not having gone into college right after high school. But I’ve learned it’s probably best that I waited. Because I now understand exactly what it is I want to do in life.”
Sandy Freeman had her first child, a son, when she was 16. She and the Freeman family lived on some tough streets in and around Washington, D.C.
Then Sandy had another child, another boy. She became an IT systems expert and got good jobs. She would have two more children.
When Sandy felt one of her sons was in danger at school and a neighbor beneath her apartment was charged with killing five people, Sandy decided to move to Durham. No job. No home. Just a belief that it was best.
She told her kids, who she was raising pretty much by herself: “You can’t beat a bullet. We are not going to be another statistic.”
Later, after the family settled here, Sandy kept her kids busy. From the DVD: “By the time my kids get home, they’re exhausted. They don’t have time for trouble.”
Keith: “Are you a leader or a follower?”
Sandy: “Definitely a leader (laughter). I tried being a follower a couple times. It didn’t work out for me.”
Keith: “What does the future hold?”
Sandy: “For myself personally, all good things. I just want to change the world. One student at a time.”
At the time of the interview, she’d already enrolled at N.C. Central and was studying to be a teacher. Sandy was determined to work with kids (and their parents) who struggled in many ways just to survive every day.
“So this is my goal,” she said. “Help people get through.” Later, she said: “It’s all really about making choices ... about designing your life the way you want it to be.”
Sandy became a mentor to kids here while her children were in school. She began thinking about what she could do to affect the entire educational system, not just the kids in her classrooms to come.
“I don’t mean by marching down the street with my picket sign and my Afro,” she said with a laugh. “My involvement’s going to come from the advocacy level. Standing up for anything I see that isn’t being done correctly in the school system, globalize parents, start grass-roots efforts.
“I think a lot of parents are just overwhelmed.”
Sandy said she wanted to disseminate ideas and resources, and organize folks so their voices were heard.
“I don’t worry so much about my kids,” Sandy said. “I worry more for the other kids in America whose parents aren’t as fortunate as I am.”
Fortunate? Sandy Freeman built a better life by the force of will.
Her oldest son, the one she had when she was 16, is a post-doctoral fellow in biochemistry at UNC-Chapel Hill. Another son is a dancer and writer who said he’s worked with Rihanna, Beyonce, and Alicia Keys in their shows.
Sandy’s daughter is moving toward college. Her youngest son, at 19, is autistic, and finishing up high school. A doctor once said the young boy should probably be in a group home. Sandy Freeman got another doctor.
Her dancer son, Santron, said: “Mom does what she says she’ll do. She shows us the way.”
Santron still speaks in the present tense. This, despite the fact that his mother, Cassandra “Sandy” Freeman, who worked out every day, died of sudden heart failure at the age of 43. She’d just finished the night’s last dance at The Town with her boyfriend. Then she collapsed.
“It was the happiest moment of her life, I think,” Nickens said, struggling with tears. “Right before she left us.”
Sandy was already student teaching at Pearsontown Elementary. She died two months before she was set to graduate from NCCU with her B.A. in elementary education. Two years after she did the audio tape.
“Why did I do the tape? Keith said. “Something told me to.”
In May 2008, Santron was given his mother’s diploma at NCCU’s graduation.
In a few days time, on August 10, Sandy Freeman would have turned 50. Just imagine what she’d be doing now.
The last thing Sandy said on the DVD came after she advised people to follow that voice inside that tells you what’s good for you.
“Listen,” Sandy Freeman said softly. “Have faith. You can’t get lost that way.”
And the interview ended.