How Mrs. Grady Transformed Olly Neal
Nick Kristof with a wonderful story:
IF you want to understand how great teachers transform lives, listen to the story of Olly Neal.
A recent study showed how a great elementary schoolteacher can raise the lifetime earnings of a single class by $700,000. After I wrote about the study, skeptics of school reform wrote me to say: sure, a great teacher can make a difference in the right setting, but not with troubled, surly kids in a high-poverty environment. If you think that, or if you scoff at the statistics, then listen to Neal.
In the late 1950s, Olly Neal was a poor black kid with an attitude. He was one of 13 brothers and sisters in a house with no electricity, and his father was a farmer with a second-grade education. Neal attended a small school for black children — this was in the segregated South — and was always mouthing off. He remembers reducing his English teacher, Mildred Grady, to tears.
"I was not a nice kid," he recalls. "I had a reputation. I was the only one who made her cry."
Neal adds: "She would have had good reason to say, 'this boy is incorrigible.' "
A regular shoplifter back then, Neal was caught stealing from the store where he worked part time. He seemed headed for a life in trouble.
Carolyn F. Blakely, then a new teacher at the school (who retired last year as the dean of the Honors College that now bears her name at the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff), remembers Neal as an at-risk kid prone to challenge authority. At the time, even teachers in the school called students "Mr." or "Miss," but Neal disrupted class by addressing her impertinently as "Carolyn."
To deal with kids like him, Blakely told me, "I'd go home and stand in front of the mirror and practice being mean."