World Read Aloud Day! A story about the power of reading

7 Mar

Olly Neal and Mrs. Grady

*This story is based on  real people. Their words and thoughts have been invented by me, as have some of the narrative details.*

Mrs. Grady had been teaching English for a long time. She watched her students struggle, knowing that no matter how well they did, they would not have the same opportunities as the white children in town. Still, she worked hard to help them love reading and to be curious, hopeful that one day the world would change.

Olly lived in a small house with thirteen brothers and sisters, no electricity, and no hope. Watching his father toil on a farm, with a second-grade education, Olly couldn’t imagine a different future. What difference could reading make?

He was a particularly difficult student. He didn’t care about school. He interrupted Mrs. Grady, called her by her first name, and let her know that he didn’t share her optimism. Sometimes, Mrs. Grady bit her lip and held back her tears, sobbing as soon as he left her classroom.  She couldn’t give up, yet she didn’t know how to go on. Not with him. Not with Olly.

One day, Olly skipped math class. He wandered into the library to hide from the truant officer.  Mrs. Grady was on library duty. Seeing him, she almost sent him back to class. She hesitated, unwilling to incur his rudeness on that day.

Instead, she watched as Olly stalked the aisles. Eventually his eyes fell on the spine of a book.

“Frank Yerby,” Olly thought, “What a strange name.”  The title, The Treasure of Pleasant Valley was enticing. And the slightly sheer dress worn by the lady on the cover was titillating. Maybe he’d read this book.

But, Olly had a reputation. And reputations could be ruined by something as simple as checking a book out of the library. So, Olly slipped the book into the back of his pants and pulled his sweater over it.  He sauntered out of the library, undetected.

Or so he thought. Mrs. Grady had seen him take the book. She was about to reprimand him when she saw him look to see if anyone was watching. He didn’t look at her; he looked at the other students in the library. That’s when it hit her, “He can’t be seen reading. It’d spoil his bad-boy reputation.” Smiling, she watched him leave.

A few weeks later Olly slipped the Yerby book back onto the shelf where he’d found it.  “Hey, I don’t remember that one,” he thought as he noticed another Yerby book there. Glancing around, he slipped this new book in his waistband and sauntered out of the library.

“Uh-oh.” Mrs. Grady realized that she only had the two Yerby books in the library.  She worried that Olly wouldn’t read other authors. Mrs. Grady began driving around to used bookstores; seventy miles later she found what she needed. And the next week Olly found another book.

And so it went.  Olly would return a book and find another. Sneaking in and out of the library, he read every book Mrs. Grady put on the shelf, never knowing the risks she took to do so.

Olly had discovered not only a love of reading, but a black author, something nearly unheard of in the segregated South of the 1950s. He began to see the possibilities of a life different than his parents’. Like Mrs. Grady, he began to dream of a time when blacks might have all the same opportunities as whites.

Eventually Olly read other books. He read magazines and newspapers. He stopped worrying so much about his bad-boy reputation. Then, Olly went to college and law school.  Olly broke the barriers that had restricted Mrs. Grady, becoming the first black district attorney in Arkansas. He went on to be a judge and an appellate court judge.

Years later, Olly saw Mrs. Grady at a high school reunion. Only then, did he learn what she had quietly done to change his path from petty thief to successful judge, father, and man.

*Many thanks to Nicholas Kristoff and his New York Times op-ed piece, “How Mrs. Grady Transformed Olly Neal” (January 21, 2012) for the inspiration for this story.

Related Links:

Nicholas Kristoff’s inspiringop-ed, “How Mrs. Grady Transformed Olly Neal.”

Olly Neal Gets His Read On, From the Snap Judgment website, a re-posting of Neal telling his daughter this story as part of NPR’s StoryCorps. SnapJudgment’s  Glynn Washington’s introduction is great.

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2 Responses to “World Read Aloud Day! A story about the power of reading”

  1. Cassie March 7, 2012 at 1:16 pm #

    <3<3<3<3<3 thank you for sharing so much. This was lovely and I had no idea it was World Read Aloud Day!

  2. Culture Bean March 8, 2012 at 7:44 am #

    I’m glad you found the post and enjoyed it Hopefully you found someone to read to!

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