AUDIE CORNISH, Host:
Today, we're introducing a new feature to our program.
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CORNISH: You've probably heard StoryCorps, the American oral history project on NPR. Two people sit down in a studio and talk, telling stories about their lives. The people at StoryCorps record and archive the conversation. They've done some special projects too, focusing on one area of American life - for example, the Griot Project, which highlighted the stories of African-Americans. This is Lynn Weaver telling his daughter Kimberly about his father, Ted Thurman Weaver, who was a factory worker and chauffeur.
LYNN WEAVER: I was sitting at the kitchen table, trying to do my homework. And I got frustrated, saying, I just can't figure this out. So my father said, what's the problem? Let me look at it. I said, Dad, they didn't even have algebra in your day. And I went to sleep. And around 4 o'clock that morning, he woke me up. He's sitting at the kitchen table, and he taught me algebra. What he had done is sat up all night and read the algebra book, and then he explained the problems to me so I could do them. And to this day, I live my life trying to be half the man my father was.
CORNISH: Lynn Weaver took those lessons from his father and is now the chairman of surgery at Morehouse School of Medicine in Atlanta, Georgia. Now, StoryCorps is honing in on more lessons about learning with a new project for the academic year called the National Teachers Initiative. It will feature public school teachers across the country. And to start it off, StoryCorps founder Dave Isay is here to tell us a little more about the project. Hi there, Dave.
DAVE ISAY: Hi, Audie.
CORNISH: So, many of us have heard StoryCorps stories on NPR programs. Why the focus on teachers? Why now?
ISAY: We're excited to be launching a big, national initiative for the next year, celebrating teachers across the country. I think that there is no higher calling than being a public school teacher in this country, and teachers are feeling under attack and underappreciated. And we want to do our part over the next year to turn that around. We had a launch at the White House earlier this past week, and one of the people who came to the White House is someone who you'll be hearing in a future StoryCorps segment on WEEKEND EDITION Sunday. This is a man named Ayodeji Ogani(ph), who was studying medicine and quit studying medicine after his father, who was a cab driver in Chicago, was murdered - to become a public school teacher, when he realized that was his calling. And this is Ayodeji, speaking at our opening at the White House.
AYODEJI OGANI: I guess I'm one of the newbies - I've only been teaching for two years. And a lot of people know that I do have the capacity to be a neurosurgeon. But when they find out that I'm a teacher, it's like, oh. And I use that sort of as a motivator, because I know that whatever jobs that they're going to have in their future lives, they couldn't have it without me. They can't have it.
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ISAY: So we're going to spend the next year recording stories across the country, hundreds of stories with teachers interviewing each other, students going back and finding the teachers who meant something to them, and thanking them by honoring them through a 40-minute StoryCorps interview - and just generally shine a light on this incredible profession.
CORNISH: And to kick off our collaboration, you've actually brought the first of those stories from the National Teachers Initiative interviews with you. Set it up for us. What are we about to hear?
ISAY: I have, indeed. This first story is about a science teacher at Medford Memorial Middle School in Medford, New Jersey. His name's Al Siedlecki. And a former student of his named Lee Buono took him to StoryCorps. Lee Buono is a neurosurgeon, and he came to StoryCorps with Mr. Si - as he calls Mr. Siedlecki - to tell the story about his patient that reconnected him with his favorite teacher.
LEE BUONO: This patient comes in, and he's got a benign tumor that's pushing on his speech area. He can get some words out but it's almost unintelligible. It's almost like someone's sewing your mouth closed. So I'm talking to his wife, and we tried to lighten up the situation, and they started asking me about myself. And they asked me who inspired me. So of course, I mention you. We have the surgery. He gets his speech back, and he's just excited and happy and crying, and wanted to just hug me. And he said, you make sure you call that teacher. You make sure you thank him. So I called you.
AL SIEDLECKI: I picked the phone up, and he - go - hi, it's Lee Buono. I say, wait, what's going on, man? I haven't heard from you since you were in high school. And you said, I want to thank you. I was flabbergasted. I said, of all the people in your entire career, you want to thank me? It was the same feeling I had when my kids were born, and I started to cry. Made me feel really important that I had that influence on you. Lately, I almost am afraid to say that I'm a teacher to some people, but I'm not because you called me. I'm a teacher, and I'm going to help as many people as I can to find their passion, too.
CORNISH: That was teacher Al Siedlecki and his former student Lee Buono. Their interview was recorded as part of StoryCorps' National Teacher Initiative. I'm talking with Dave Isay, the founder of StoryCorps, about that new program.
ISAY: You know, I think what we're trying to do with StoryCorps in general is tell what I think is the real American story - the stories of courage, kindness, and grace and dignity, that we find when we take the time to listen to people all around us. And it's a great privilege to be honoring teachers over the next year through this special StoryCorps initiative.
CORNISH: Dave Isay is the founder of StoryCorps. Thank you so much for joining us, and for sharing this project with us.
ISAY: Thanks, Audie. And I hope that over the next year as people listen to these stories, whether if they aren't actually personally participating in StoryCorps, that they'll take the time to think about a teacher who meant something to them. Track that person down, give them a call and thank them.
CORNISH: And we'll be hearing stories from the National Teachers Initiative each month for the rest of the school year.
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CORNISH: You're listening to WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News.