Can I Just Tell You?Can I Just Tell You? NPR's Michel Martin gives a distinct take on news and issues

Giving Thanks for Ms. Deane

The program's host talks about a person she's grateful for this Thanksgiving — her ninth-grade English teacher and dorm parent, Virginia Deane.

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And finally, because it's Thanksgiving and we're talking about gratitude, I want to tell you about somebody I'm grateful for. Her name is/was Virginia Deane, she was my ninth grade English teacher and dorm parent. When I think about whatever success I've achieved, she, as much as anybody, is one of the people I hold responsible.

Can I just tell you, if you were to pick somebody out of a book as mentor for yours truly, she is not the one who would come to mind. When we met, she was a classic New England - I have to say it because she would - spinster type, steel-gray hair that look like it was cut with a butter knife, held off her face with an assortment of headbands with things like whales on them, baggy skirts that swished around a hemline of no particular length, waxy, nicotine-stained fingers, a cigarette never far away; the ugliest shoes you ever saw.

Me - classic urban teenager, never been anywhere other than the city I lived in or my grandmother's house in Philadelphia, a big fur that I had just learned to pick to perfection, platform shoes that were treacherous on the ice, but of which I was very proud, and no real connection to or knowledge of anybody or anyone outside of my own circle.

I don't know what it was that she saw in me, but she saw something. I knew I was bright, but I had never really been challenged in school. Ms. Deane made it her business to see that I was. She would call me into her study where she would be having a nip of sherry - I know she never offered me any - and say, dearie, I think we need you in a different class. Dearie, I think we need you to try out for the debate team. Dearie, I think we need to send you down to Washington with this program I heard about. After a couple of months of this, I found myself skipping the 10th grade, and after a bit more of this, I found myself applying to go to college a year early.

On my part, there were financial concerns, but I didn't really want her to know that. She figured it out and tried to get me to stay, but when it became clear I was going to go, she gave me bus fare to visit the colleges to which I had been accepted.

It has to be said that in my adolescent narcissism, I never learned much about her until after she was long gone. I learned after her death that she loved to teach but felt forced to choose between teaching and having a family since pregnant teachers were almost always forced to quit their jobs in her day. But she regretted never having a family of her own and resented the fact that as her parents aged and fell ill, it was assumed that she, as a spinster girl, would always be around to clean up the mess. And when I learned that, I realized why she never tried to give me boyfriend advice, but slyly managed to steer me in the direction of those who could. And it worked; my choices weren't always the best, but there was no permanent scarring.

Here's the other reason I'm thinking about her. We live in a time when we seem to have the idea that everybody should just stick to their own. Black folks with $3 to rub together are constantly being hammered if they don't keep it real - whatever that means. And I see the same thing with other ethnic groups. Take care of your own, seems to be the mantra. But if that had Ms. Deane's attitude, where would I be? By skin color, by heritage, I was not one of her own, but she made me her own. We should all be so lucky.

(Soundbite of music)

MARTIN: Thanks to all of you who called in to share your Thanksgiving thoughts. We want to wish everyone a happy and healthy holiday.

This is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin. Let's talk more tomorrow.

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Can I Just Tell You?Can I Just Tell You? NPR's Michel Martin gives a distinct take on news and issues