Gail Markland, like any proud UNC-Chapel Hill graduate, will wait her turn Sunday to smile for a photograph at the Old Well in her cap and gown.
It’s been a long time coming for the Chapel Hill hairdresser, who is 50. The moment will be sweet, but also bittersweet.
She was supposed to pose alongside the revered UNC president, William Friday, the man who encouraged her along the way. On the day he died in 2012, crowds of people waited at the well to lay long-stemmed flowers in his memory.
Markland never dreamed she’d receive a diploma at any university, much less one that draws North Carolina’s top students.
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Her remarkable journey to graduation day started with a haircut.
About five years ago, Fringe Salon’s phone rang, and the caller ID said, “William Friday.”
A nervous Markland had been expecting the call. Friday’s assistant, who was Markland’s client, recommended her when Friday’s barber died.
At first, Markland said, she was petrified to meet him, but it wasn’t long before Friday felt like a favorite granddad. At the monthly appointments, the conversation flowed, but he was never interested in talking about himself. He wanted to know about her.
She opened her shop early for him, at 8:30 a.m., out of respect for a gentleman in his 90s. “I didn’t want everyone gawking at him while he was getting his hair cut,” she said in a recent interview. “Plus, I wanted him all to myself.”
At the time, Markland was a part-time student at Durham Technical Community College, in her third year of study. Friday would barely get inside the doors of the salon before he wanted an update on her academics.
“‘What are you learning? What are you working on? What are your grades like?’” she described him saying. “Always. ‘What are your grades like?’ Every time.”
The questioning was gentle, though. “He cared,” she said. “You could feel that he cared.”
Education is for ‘other folks’
Going back to school had been a diversion for the divorced mother of one – something to fill her time when her own daughter headed off to college. Markland had only planned to take a course or two.
But even that had required a gigantic act of courage.
Raised in Manchester, England, Markland was the daughter of a miner and a mother who worked in a weaving factory. Both parents had left school at age 12.
“Education was not stressed,” she said. “Education was for those other folks, you know? We were blue-collar working people.”
She managed to graduate high school, she said, only because she was good at sewing and technical drawing. The classroom had been torture. In elementary school, tables were color coded. Red was for “A” students, blue was for “B” students. Markland alternated between yellow and green – the “stupid” tables.
“It was so frustrating because I knew I was smart, but I just couldn’t figure out how to show it,” she recalled. “So it just kills your confidence, and it’s so confusing. It’s like being trapped in a strait jacket. You want to get out, but you don’t know how to.”
She attempted art school in England but quit to take a job as a hairdresser and go to beauty school one day a week.
In the early 1990s, she and her daughter moved to Chapel Hill after Markland married an American. She later divorced, and in 2007 became a U.S. citizen.
By then, she had opened her own salon, and her customers would play a pivotal role in her future education.
Through day-to-day salon chatter, Markland began to see herself in the stories clients told about their children’s struggles at school. One client, a specialist in attention disorders, offered to test Markland.
She was diagnosed with dyslexia and attention deficit disorder, and a doctor prescribed Ritalin. Suddenly, everything began to make sense.
“I took the Ritalin, and I sat down and read like for the first time ever,” she said. “It was like a light switch going on. It was unbelievable. I could read.”
But there was a long way to go. At Durham Tech, after bombing placement tests, she was sent to remedial math and English classes. Once she conquered them, she began to sign up for others.
Another client happened to be a faculty member at Durham Tech and offered to be Markland’s adviser. Markland’s daughter, Sarah Bourke, then a student at the University of Georgia, was a lifeline on the other end of the phone.
Sometimes Markland would ask her daughter to help decipher the instructions for an assignment. Sometimes she would read the questions over and over.
Bourke passed on the same advice Markland had given her when she was growing up.
“I would say, ‘You can do this,’” Bourke said. “Because of her, I’d always been really confident in school.”
A new opportunity
Markland built on her confidence in her regular chats with Friday, who had led the UNC system for three decades from 1956 to 1986.
When she told him she was doing a project on the Articles of Confederation for an American history class, he began to tell her why they were a great idea but didn’t work in the long run.
“I said, ‘Wait a minute, let me get a pen and paper, I need to write this down,’” she recalled. “He understood it inside and out. So he’s telling me all the nuances to the Articles of Confederation.”
The next visit? “I got an A, Mr. Friday,” she told him, to which he responded, “Good job, good job.”
One day in 2011, he asked her to give him a recent paper she’d written. She printed out an extra copy of her essay on Charles Dickens’ “Hard Times.” Handing it to him, she said, was more nerve wracking than giving it to her literature professor. She didn’t know why he wanted it; he just seemed interested.
The next visit, Friday came in with the paper, put it on her table and told her she wrote like a journalist. “That’s OK,” he told her. “Carolina will be better off for having you.”
Markland had excelled at community college, earning a 3.99 grade point average and only one B on her way to a two-year associate degree. But she had no plan beyond Durham Tech. She had enrolled there, really, to prove to herself that she hadn’t belonged at the yellow table.
“That was my mountain,” she said. “For me, I was achieving my goal. But Mr. Friday had other ideas.”
Friday smoothed the way for her to enter as a part-time local student through the Friday Center for Continuing Education. As at Durham Tech, she could take two classes in the fall, two in the spring and one in the summer.
She didn’t think she could compete with students at UNC, and she tried to talk herself out of it. Enrolling there at age 46 would not be easy.
Then one day she got a call from Friday. “Hey, Mr. Friday, are you ready for a haircut?”
No, he said. He had news – he had found her a scholarship, one earmarked for adult students. “Now for this scholarship, you have to be 35 years old,” he told her. “We’ve never discussed your age, but I hope you’re over 35.”
The award provided $8,000 a year, enough to cover her tuition and books.
She began the registration process.
“On some level, I thought, if he thinks I can do this, I can do this,” she recalled. “And I want to do it for him and me.”
Succeeding in class
Once at UNC, she began to take courses that just sounded interesting to her – anthropology, social sciences. She still liked art history, but it required too many papers. Writing was difficult, and involved a huge amount of time and effort for her.
Markland enrolled in a Spanish class and found her academic home. She loved it.
Her Spanish professors describe a student who was motivated, always asking questions and looking to expand her knowledge.
“She was one of the most enthusiastic students I’ve ever had,” said Cristina Carrasco, a faculty member in Romance Studies who taught Markland in two advanced classes. “She was the kind of person that she would be so excited about what she was studying and learning, she would make the other students in class really enthusiastic about it too.”
The experience was intellectually intimidating at first. There were days, sitting in class, when she thought: Why am I here? Those moments were fleeting, though. The reason, she told herself, was this: Friday would soon be coming in for a haircut, and he’d want a report.
Their conversations deepened along the way. She’d bring up a recent classroom topic.
For example: “Do you know, Mr. Friday, in Tanzania, the government is trying to push all these indigenous people off their land because they’re trying to make money on the tourism industry?”
“Tell me about that, Gail,” he’d say.
Soon after the scholarship, she had written Friday a letter, thanking him, and promising to do her best in school. When he died in 2012, she sat near the front of his memorial service, wearing a light blue blouse.
Markland made good on her pledge. She will graduate with a 3.6 grade point average, and she takes none of it for granted.
“When I get an A in a class, even now, I get teary-eyed,” she said. “It’s like self-validating. I still have to pinch myself.”
He had told her they’d go down to the Old Well for a picture together. She’d be wearing her regalia. “You can send it to your family in England,” he would say. “They’ll be very proud of you, and they’ll really like that.”
Turns out some of her family will be in Chapel Hill for graduation. She has rented a barn for a party Sunday afternoon with 120 relatives, friends and clients from the salon.
Markland will remain a hairdresser, but there are other possibilities, such as volunteering for a new literacy program, helping struggling children read. She thinks she’d be able to reach them.
“I’ve now got this gift that he’s given me. How is that going to play out? I think about it all the time,” she said. “How can I honor what Mr. Friday has done for me?”
Markland won’t be able to stand next to Friday at the Old Well. But he will be with her at commencement in Kenan Stadium.
She’ll have his photograph tucked inside her Carolina blue cap.