Teachers Archives - StoryCorps

After Four Decades In The Classroom, A Texas Teacher Is Keeping History Alive

Nelva Williamson grew up in a small town near Cape Cod, MA. Her mother was a teacher for 52 years and her father was a career military man.

Nelva Williamson (center) poses with her mother, Vird Ella Williams (left), and her father, Harold Williams (right), at Nelva’s college graduation. 

Nelva grew up with a love and respect for learning that she carried with her throughout her life. As a young woman she found herself drawn to the classroom, and 42 years later that’s still where you will find her. When faced with the option of retiring, Nelva instead decided to help found a public high school in Houston, Texas. The school is an all-girls institution serving predominantly Black and Hispanic students.

Nelva came to StoryCorps with her son Timothy J. Harris to reflect on her 42-year career and the importance of teaching ‘the whole history.’

Top Photo: Nelva Williamson and Timothy J. Harris at their StoryCorps interview in Houston, Texas on May 26, 2022. By Jey Born for StoryCorps.

This broadcast is supported in part by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, a private corporation funded by the American people, and the National Endowment for the Arts.

Originally aired August 26, 2022, on NPR’s Morning Edition.

“He Took Me Under His Wing”: The Father Figure Who Mentored Aspiring Black Surgeons

As a kid, Vivien Thomas had dreams of being a doctor. He enrolled in college at Tennessee A&I State College, but in 1929, the stock market crashed, and he couldn’t afford to continue. But Thomas was determined to make his dreams a reality, and he got a job working under prominent surgeon, Alfred Blalock. Eventually, Thomas became the Director of Surgical Research Laboratories at Johns Hopkins University.

Dr. Thomas was at the forefront of medical breakthroughs. He invented several surgical tools and methods, many of which are still used today. He is most notably credited with identifying a solution for a deadly condition known as “Blue Baby Syndrome” — a congenital heart affliction in babies.

During his over four-decade career at Hopkins, Dr. Thomas passed down the knowledge by training dozens of other aspiring surgeons, particularly Black men, like Fred Gilliam and Jerry Harris. 

Fred Gilliam and Jerry Harris at their StoryCorps interview in Baltimore, Maryland. Photo by Alletta Cooper for StoryCorps.

Many of the men who Dr. Thomas trained had little-to-no formal medical training before they worked for him, including Fred and Jerry.

They came to StoryCorps to remember the time they spent learning and training under Dr. Thomas, and how his mentorship changed their lives.

Dr. Vivien Thomas in his lab. Public Domain. 

Dr. Vivien Thomas never received a formal medical degree, but In 1976, he received an honorary degree from Johns Hopkins Hospital. Dr. Thomas died in 1985.

Fred Gilliam started his work with Dr. Thomas shortly after finishing high school. Dr. Thomas encouraged and enabled Fred to continue his higher education. Fred received his Associates degree in Emergency Medical Technology, and he went on to work at the American Red Cross.

Jerry Harris had previously been in nursing school before his time with Dr. Thomas. He honed his skills in pediatric surgery during his time with Dr. Thomas, and later stayed at Johns Hopkins as a coordinator in the School of Medicine. Harris died in 2019.

This broadcast is supported in part by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, a private corporation funded by the American people, and the National Endowment for the Arts.

Originally aired July 1st, 2022, on NPR’s Morning Edition.

A Columbine Survivor On Going Home To Teach

Warning: the audio version of this story contains strong language.

Mandy Cooke was a sophomore at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colorado in 1999, when two students opened fire at the school, killing 13 people and themselves.

Mandy later became a teacher back at Columbine.

At StoryCorps in Denver, Mandy sat down with Paula Reed — her former teacher from Columbine — to talk about the two decades that followed, and the lasting impact of the shooting.

Originally broadcast May 27, 2022 on NPR’s Morning Edition.

Top photo: Paula Reed (L) and Mandy Cooke (R) at StoryCorps in Denver, CO. By Kevin Oliver for StoryCorps.

Breaking Baseball’s Color Barrier: How Jackie Robinson Inspired One Man “To Be Somebody”

On April 15, 1947, Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier in Major League Baseball when he took Ebbets Field for the Brooklyn Dodgers. That day is a historic marker for racial progress, but his journey to becoming the first African American player in the majors began in Daytona Beach, Florida — a year earlier.

During the spring of 1946, Robinson was a member of the Montreal Royals, the minor league club for the Dodgers, and he was in Daytona Beach to train. In the segregated South, he couldn’t play on whites-only ballfields with the rest of his team, so he practiced at Kelly Field, a local playground in the Black section of town.

It was at Kelly Field where Harold Lucas, Jr. met Jackie Robinson.

Photo of 6-year-old Harold Lucas, Jr., from 1949. Courtesy of Harold Lucas, Jr.

The Royals were preparing to play a minor league game in Sanford, Florida, but segregation laws — and a mob of threatening townsfolk — prevented Robinson from taking the field. So Black leaders in Daytona Beach stepped in, and gave Robinson a place to play — and an opportunity for Black residents to cheer for him.

Harold Lucas attended Robinson’s first game, and remembered that day at StoryCorps.

Top Photo: D’Lorah Butts-Lucas, Harold Lucas, Jr. and Darryll Lucas after their StoryCorps interview in Daytona Beach, Florida on March 21, 2022.

Hear more about Jackie Robinson’s journey to the big leagues in Daytona Beach.

Originally aired April 15, 2022, on NPR’s Morning Edition.

Bringing Hope and a Love of Horses to L.A. Streets

Ghuan Featherstone grew up in South Central Los Angeles. He has one clear memory of riding a horse for the first time, in Griffith Park, when he was eight years old. It was a feeling that he never forgot, and a lifelong passion was born.

When Ghuan left the military and returned to L.A. years later, he began to immerse himself in the craft of riding and caring for horses. After a tragic fire destroyed his neighborhood stable, Ghuan saw a hole torn into his community. Instead of standing by, Ghuan decided to step forward to found a new stable: Urban Saddles.

Jordan Humphreys riding his horse Winter at the Urban Saddles Stables, in South Gate, California.

He came to StoryCorps with his mentee Jordan Humphreys. At just 13 years old Jordan has become a cornerstone of Urban Saddles.

Top photo: Ghuan Featherstone and Jordan Humphreys at their StoryCorps interview in Los Angeles, California on December 15th, 2021. By Maja Sazdic for StoryCorps.

Originally aired January 28th, 2022 on NPR’s Morning Edition.

A Pastor Who Was Once A Mischievous Child, Pays Tribute To “The People That Nurtured Me”

Growing up in the 1950s in Montgomery, AL., Rev. Farrell Duncombe or “Little Farrell,” as he was known by his family and friends, had a mischievous side. But he had many role models who kept him in line. One such person was his own father, Rev. Henry A. Duncombe Sr., who was the pastor of their church, St. Paul A.M.E. Church of Montgomery. 

It was at that church, where Farrell also drew inspiration from his Sunday school teacher, Miss Rosalie — eventually known to the rest of the world as Rosa Parks.

Later on, Farrell took all the lessons he’d learned growing up and went on to become a public school band teacher, and then a principal. He also stepped into his father’s shoes and became a pastor at his childhood church.

In 2010, Farrell came to StoryCorps with his friend and fraternity brother, Howard Robinson, to reflect on the people who nurtured him, and the humility he feels standing at his father’s pulpit. 

Rev Farrell Duncombe died on June 2, 2021 in Montgomery, Alabama.

Top Photo: Rev. Farrell Duncombe and Howard Robinson at their StoryCorps interview in Montgomery, AL on November 24, 2010. By Elizabeth Straight for StoryCorps.

Originally aired June 11, 2021, on NPR’s Morning Edition. 

Listen to Rev. Dumcombe’s story on the StoryCorps Podcast.

“You Didn’t Elevate Me, But You Helped Me Elevate Myself”: How A Dedicated Teacher Turned Into A Lifelong Friend

Raymond Blanks had very few Black teachers when he was growing up in Newark, NJ. But the ones he did have, made a big impact on how he saw himself and what he believed he could be. Raymond’s 7th grade math and science teacher, Sean Lloyd, was one of them. Mr. Lloyd challenged Raymond to strive for excellence, both in and out of the classroom, and now Raymond is paying it forward.

Raymond is now a sixth grade math teacher at a charter school in Newark, NJ. One of only two Black male teachers there. 

In 2020, Black men made up only 2% of teachers across the country. And in Newark, where around half of the students are Black, Black men make up only about 8% of the teachers. 

Photo: Sean Lloyd (left) and Raymond Blanks receiving their Masters degrees. Courtesy of Raymond Blanks.

Raymond stayed in touch with Sean through high school and college. When Raymond started teaching, he received his first job from Sean, at a school that Sean helped co-found. They eventually even received their Master’s degrees together. The two had a conversation using StoryCorps Connect, to talk about how Sean’s passion for his students shaped Raymond’s career path, and deepened their friendship.

Top Photo: Raymond Blanks and Sean Lloyd. Courtesy of Sean Lloyd and Raymond Blanks.

“Don’t Let Anybody Tell You That You Can’t:” GED Instructor Helps His Student Soar

Ngoc Nguyen was born in Saigon just a few years before the end of the Vietnam War. As a child, she had to work to support her family and ultimately dropped out of school. 

After immigrating to the U.S. in her early twenties, she continued working. It would be more than two decades before Nguyen would be able to continue her education.

At 45, she enrolled in a GED program at the Opportunities Industrialization Center in Oklahoma City. At StoryCorps, Nguyen sat down with her teacher, Christopher Myers, to thank him for the role he played in helping her earn her degree despite her obstacles.

Top Photo: Christopher Myers and Ngoc Nguyen at their StoryCorps interview in Oklahoma City on February 9, 2018. By Chelsea Aguilera for StoryCorps.

Originally aired Friday, January 22, 2021, on NPR’s Morning Edition.

For Teachers And Staff In New York City Schools, Work Is An Act Of Love

In 1999, Debra Fisher worked in film and TV in New York City. But when her father became ill and required occupational therapy as part of his treatment, Fisher was impressed by the care that his therapists brought to their work. That’s when she decided to make a major career change.

Twenty-one years later, Fisher works in New York City public schools, providing occupational therapy to a wide range of students in elementary and middle school. 

Fisher met Emma Pelosi, a special education teacher, on social media during the COVID-19 pandemic. They came to rely on each other for support and friendship as they invented new ways to do their jobs. 

Fisher and Pelosi recorded a conversation through StoryCorps Connect in September 2020, just as schools were preparing to reopen their doors to more than one million school children. In their interview, they talk about how it feels to work in the country’s largest school system during this unprecedented moment.   

Top Photo: Emma Pelosi and Debra Fisher after their StoryCorps interview in New York City on September 18, 2020. Courtesy of Debra Fisher and Emma Pelosi for StoryCorps.

Originally aired September 25th, 2020, on NPR’s Morning Edition.

At The End Of High School, A Special Kind Of Thank You

Cole Phillips was like most teenagers heading into their first year of high school, wanting to make friends and fit in. But Cole, unlike his peers, had recently become blind due to complications from glaucoma. And he had the extra burden of an adult following him from class to class.

That was Rugenia Keefe, known as Miss Ru. Rugenia is a paraprofessional who assisted Cole with many of his most difficult subjects — attending class, taking notes, and ultimately becoming a friend and confidant.

Over the four years they worked together, Miss Ru and Cole came to rely on each other’s humor and humility. So, when Cole got an assignment to “record someone who made an impact on your time in high school” for a senior project, there was no question in Cole’s mind whom to interview — it had to be Miss Ru.  

Top Photo: Rugenia Keefe (left) and Cole Phillips at Bentonville West High School. Courtesy of Cole Phillips.

Originally aired June 19, 2020, on NPR’s Morning Edition.