New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof has an inspiring column today about the power of teachers to change lives.
He writes about Olly Neal, a poor kid with such a bad attitude that he pushed his teacher Mildred Grady to tears. One of 13 kids growing up in a house with no electricity, Neal attended a segregated Arkansas school and was considered a problem student.
But in his senior year, Neal stole a book from the high school library, and it changed everything. He eventually became Judge Neal. His inspiring story was featured on NPR’s StoryCorps in 2009, and you can hear Neal tell his own version here. In that oral history, Neal also credits a second educator, Mrs. Saunders, as a co-conspirator with Mrs. Grady in his redemption.
Kristof writes about Neal today: (This is a small excerpt. Please read the full piece. It is worth your time.)
Neal wasn’t a reader, but he spotted a book with a risqué cover of a sexy woman. Called “The Treasure of Pleasant Valley,” it was by Frank Yerby, a black author, and it looked appealing. Neal says he thought of checking it out, but he didn’t want word to get out to any of his classmates that he was reading a novel. That would have been humiliating.
“So I stole it.”
Neal tucked the book under his jacket and took it home — and loved it. After finishing the book, he sneaked it back into the library. And there, on the shelf, he noticed another novel by Yerby. He stole that one as well. This book was also terrific. And, to Neal’s surprise, when he returned it to the shelf after finishing it, he found yet another by Yerby.
Four times this happened, and he caught the book bug. “Reading got to be a thing I liked,” he says. His trajectory changed, and he later graduated to harder novels, including those by Albert Camus, and he turned to newspapers and magazines as well. He went to college and later to law school. In 1991, Neal was appointed the first black district prosecuting attorney in Arkansas. A few years later, he became a judge, and then an appellate court judge.
But there’s more. At a high school reunion, Grady stunned Neal by confiding to him that she had spotted him stealing that first book. Her impulse was to confront him, but then, in a flash of understanding, she realized his embarrassment at being seen checking out a book.
So Grady kept quiet. The next Saturday, she told him, she drove 70 miles to Memphis to search the bookshops for another novel by Yerby. Finally, she found one, bought it and put it on the library bookshelf. Twice more, Grady told Neal, she spent her Saturdays trekking to Memphis to buy books by Yerby — all in hopes of turning around a rude adolescent who had made her cry. She paid for the books out of her own pocket.
How can one measure Grady’s impact? Not only in Neal, but in the lives of those around him. His daughter, Karama, earned a doctorate in genetics, taught bioethics at Emory University, and now runs a community development program in Arkansas.
–From Maureen Downey, for the AJC Get Schooled blog