JOHN DONVAN, HOST:
This is a Thanksgiving Day special from NPR News. I'm John Donvan in Washington. Neal Conan is away. Somewhere, sometime in your past, in mine, if we were lucky, we encountered a teacher who made all of the difference for us, and maybe we didn't even realize the fact until long afterwards.
And what if we never got the chance to say thanks? If only we could go back now. Well, why not is the argument that's being made by the oral history project known as StoryCorps, which for four years now has declared the day after Thanksgiving a national day of listening, encouraging Americans to go out and record an interview with a loved one who made a difference in their lives, literally for an archive that has been kept in the Library of Congress forever.
This year's StoryCorps has picked a theme, and that theme is to thank your favorite teacher. And they're saying it can be done with a Tweet or a Facebook post or a call or a card or one of their face-to-face interviews for the Library of Congress.
And so for me, it is time to say thank you to someone. I want to say thank you to Mr. Spizzirri(ph), who taught me biology in the ninth grade, and it's nice that I can do it on the radio. It's even nicer that I can do it in person on the radio because Salvatore Spizzirri joins us now from his home in Amityville, New York. Mr. Spizzirri, welcome to the program, and happy Thanksgiving.
SALVATORE SPIZZIRRI: Happy Thanksgiving to you.
DONVAN: You know, I have to be honest, the most profound and basic and embarrassing question I have is do you remember me?
SPIZZIRRI: Yes, I do, John.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
SPIZZIRRI: I remember you, and I remember your family. I remember - I can call up the picture of you, your mother and your father standing in school. It must have been a parents' night. You had your orange and green plaid jacket on and your black glasses, and you were shorter than me. Now I'm sure that you're much taller.
But yeah, I remember. I think your dad was a guidance counselor and...
DONVAN: Yes, he was.
DONVAN: Well, it's funny you mention the orange jacket because that, you know, I suspect you think I want to thank you for helping me in biology. You were at Regis High School, I think, at the time. You were about 23 years old, and I was 14, a freshman.
And I'm not thanking you for teaching me biology. I'm thanking you about that orange jacket because what you represented to me at that time was the height of hip and cool. You used to hang out in the Village in New York, and you used to talk about the clubs and things like that. And what I really appreciated, and I wanted to tell you this now, all of these years after the fact, that it - you took me seriously, this kid with this very badly chosen jacket.
And when we're talking about an orange and plaid jacket, we're talking about what was meant to be a blazer. And you also told me to get rid of the jacket.
SPIZZIRRI: Yeah, I remember.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
DONVAN: So I need to say thanks for that. So where did you go after teaching biology at Regis?
SPIZZIRRI: After Regis I took a year off and finished my master's degree. I got an assistantship. And then after that I did guidance work in local schools in Queens and then got a fill-in job - it was '76, I think - in Huntington Station. And then that person got better, and I had to look around.
So I found a position in the St. John's University College of Pharmacy (unintelligible). So they made me an administrator in charge of the graduate programs and the undergraduate allied health programs. And it was nice except the hours were 11 to seven on Monday through Thursday and then Friday normal.
So then I found a job at my old home liberal arts college, and I stayed there for over 20 years and retired after 30 years at St. John's three years ago.
DONVAN: Did you have any sense that you had had this impact on - I mean, I was developing, I was a very, very well-advanced nerd at that point. And the fact that somebody as cool as you would take me seriously - and we weren't - again, you were giving me sort of lessons in life. I was asking you questions about girls and things like that. And you didn't - you were totally non-condescending, and it made a very big difference.
Did you have any idea that you were having that impact?
SPIZZIRRI: No, I never knew I had an impact on anyone, just...
SPIZZIRRI: Amazing to hear.
DONVAN: Well, evidence of impact, I got rid of that jacket immediately.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
SPIZZIRRI: Good, that's a good taste...
DONVAN: Let me ask you this. Does it matter to you to be thanked? I'm sure you've had many students over the years tell you one way or another that you made a difference. Does it matter to you, or would you have done everything the same?
SPIZZIRRI: Yes, it does, especially at this stage in my life, when you look back. And, you know, you know intellectually you understand that what you've done was good, but it's always nice to get feedback. You know, you like to pat yourself on the head once in a while. It's good to have someone else pat yourself on the head.
DONVAN: Well, Mr. Spizzirri, thank you one last time for what you did all those years ago.
SPIZZIRRI: Well, thank you, John. It was fun.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
SPIZZIRRI: You know, you weren't - everybody was intelligent, highly intelligent, and I don't know if your listeners know, but it was a school for special kids, very intelligent kids. And you weren't just intelligent, you were bright. You had a great sense of humor, and you had a great dry sense of humor. You had a good eye for looking at the world.
And so you were an enjoyable kid, let me tell you.
DONVAN: Thank you, as were you, and now when I think back, I realize you were only a kid, too, if you were 23 years old.
SPIZZIRRI: I was, 23, what can I tell you?
DONVAN: Mr. Spizzirri, thanks very much for joining us, and really happy Thanksgiving to you.
SPIZZIRRI: Thank you. It was great fun. You, too. Bye-bye.
DONVAN: So I want to turn to Dave Isay, who I will introduce in a moment. But first I want to ask a very direct question. Dave Isay, how did I do?
DAVE ISAY: You did great.
DONVAN: All right.
ISAY: You know, I think what Mr. Spizzirri said was kind of remarkable, when he said - I never knew I had an impact on anyone. And that, in some ways, is the clarion call of StoryCorps. It's letting people know that they have had an impact on our lives.
DONVAN: Well, let me tell people who you are. You are the founder of StoryCorps and the National Day of Listening, and you have a program that's been in place now since, I believe, 2003, in which you are encouraging people to put conversations like that on tape or some digital form, basically, to record it. And then the idea is that those stories live on forever.
And I'm curious about the decision to ask for this theme now on thanking teachers. Why?
ISAY: Sure, and just to be clear, what we've - StoryCorps did start in 2003, and we have done about 40,000 interviews with 80,000 people across the country. And those are the interviews that go to the Library of Congress. Unfortunately, we can't accept interviews that folks do, like that great conversation you just had with Mr. Spizzirri, because of technical issues and archiving issues. But we do encourage people to have these sorts of conversations.
Teachers, yeah, we have a year-long - we've had a bunch of special initiatives with StoryCorps over the last bunch of years. We have a 9/11 initiative, where every family who lost a loved one on September 11th comes to StoryCorps to remember that loved one.
We have an African-American initiative called the Griot Project and a Latino initiative. And we launched a teachers' initiative this past year, where people are basically, in large part, finding teachers that meant a lot to them and having these conversations and thanking them. And...
DONVAN: Let me just tell you, actually, before we go to the break, we have a lineup of people already who want to tell some stories live on the air. So let's give a little bit of a chance to hear that, then I want to actually come back and hear more about StoryCorps.
DONVAN: But I want to go first to Bob(ph), who is in Reno, California. Bob, welcome to the program.
BOB: Hi, this is Bob from Reno, Nevada.
DONVAN: Hi, Bob. So who is the teacher, and what happened?
BOB: My teacher I want to thank is Mel Seals(ph). In 1977, I had him for English at Reno High School. He'd had my brother and my sister before me, and it was always rumored that he was gay, and that interested me, although he never hid it. And he just carried himself with such integrity in the classroom, and whether you were a jock, a stoner, an underachiever, or whatever, everybody really loved Mel.
And he was the first person I talked to and, you know, helped me come to terms with my sexuality. And, you know, I knew I could go talk to him and that...
DONVAN: So when you shared with him, did you feel protected?
BOB: Oh absolutely, oh yeah. I mean, he stood in front of the classroom, and it wasn't just intellect or anything that came out from him. It was this sense that he really cared about people.
DONVAN: You sound - I feel I'm hearing you choke up as you tell this story.
BOB: Yeah, yeah, yeah, well, he still has a big impact on this community and on people in this town, even though he retired many years ago.
DONVAN: Hey, Bob, thanks very much for sharing that call. And I want to ask Dave Isay, I mean the emotional content of that, do you hear a lot of that in these teacher stories?
ISAY: I do. And, you know, we've been talking about this teachers' campaign now just for a couple days, this idea that tomorrow, on the day after Thanksgiving, everyone should thank a teacher by going on Facebook, going on Twitter.
And we - I hear these stories over the last week of people like Bob's teacher, someone who recognized something in us, someone who protected us, who all of us felt like, you know, like you said, like an idiot at one point, and it's a teacher who said you're going to be okay, you know?
ISAY: And it's - yeah, you know, I actually took the time to write an email to my 11th grade English teacher last week.
DONVAN: What'd you say?
ISAY: I said thank you. It took about two minutes, and it felt great. I haven't talked to her in, you know, 30-some-odd years, and it's just a very cool thing to do.
DONVAN: Did she get back to you?
ISAY: Not yet.
DONVAN: Oh, so that's hanging out there.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
ISAY: Yeah, so yeah. So we'll see.
DONVAN: Let's go to Cooper City, Florida, and Megan(ph), welcome to the program.
MEGAN: Hi, this is Megan from Cooper City.
MEGAN: I just want to go ahead and say a big thank you to Robert Boone(ph). He was an amazing teacher that I had in high school, co-sponsor of our drama club, and it's really thanks to him that I have any fond memories of high school at all.
DONVAN: Why? Why? What happened?
MEGAN: What's that?
DONVAN: What happened?
MEGAN: It was just a tough program at times, and there was a lot of negativity. But he always had a story, and he always had a joke, and he was willing to listen no matter what.
DONVAN: And once you say thank you to him, what does that do for you?
MEGAN: Well, unfortunately, I won't have the opportunity to say thank you to him in person because he passed away two years ago after I had finished my freshman year of college. But he always knew how much he meant to all of us, and we're never going to forget him.
DONVAN: Well, Megan, you made right with the universe on that one. Thanks very much for sharing the story.
MEGAN: Thank you for the opportunity.
ISAY: Dave, is that often the case, that you find that people in general are talking about people who have passed, or is it usually (unintelligible) I got to say to Mr. Spizzirri directly, but what happens...
Well, you know, I saw - there have been a bunch of emails that came in this week, or Facebook posts, saying I wanted to track down this teacher, and I just found out he died a couple months ago.
But, you know, I think even if your teacher passed away, you know, their - a child or a brother can see this thank you, and it can mean something to them. So yes, you know, part of what we do at StoryCorps is try and encourage people to have these conversations while - you know, while this person who means so much to you is still around. But if not, pay tribute to that person by sending an email, by...
DONVAN: Well, we've already hit some pretty nice tributes, I have to say, so far in this special, special Thanksgiving program from NPR. Our number is 1-800-989-8255. Our guest is Dave Isay, the founder of StoryCorps, and all of you who are phoning in to share your stories of a teacher who made a difference. And we're hearing you say thank you, and it's ringing true for all of us. We'll be right back.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
DONVAN: This is a Thanksgiving Day special from NPR News. We are talking with all of you about teachers and in a very specific way. We're asking for your stories of the teacher who made the most difference in your life and asking what you would want to say, thank you and what else?
We are going to go now to Eli(ph) in Laramie, Wyoming. Eli, you're on the program, thanks for joining us.
ELI: Hi there. Well, Happy Thanksgiving. I wanted to thank (unintelligible). He passed away a few years ago, but he was such a passionate teacher and awesome English teacher, introduced me to so much literature that I never thought in a million years I'd read. And now I have the best job where I get to enjoy so many books that I was introduced to because of him.
DONVAN: So Eli, how did - if you can be a little bit more specific about - what's the teacher's name?
ELI: Doug Fix(ph).
DONVAN: Doug Fix, how Mr. Fix - and I'm in this habit of Mr. Spizzirri and Mr. Fix, and I applaud you for being able to grow up to the first-name level. But over the years, how did what he did stay with you?
ELI: Well, he - before I had his class, I would just read because I had to. And he showed us how any book that we read could be interesting, even though we didn't really care too much about it. And more so than his teaching, actually, in class, outside of class he had such a passion for life. He ran. He skied. He drove motorcycles. He just had actually just a passion of life that was awesome for me.
And I just tried to continue on his legacy after that.
DONVAN: Eli, thanks very much for joining us. Dave Isay, I want to share with you an email that we - and we're getting a lot of emails. You know, the nice thing about this is the signal is that - for all that they put up with in the culture politically now, and they get bashed a lot, the evidence from us right now is that there are an awful lot of stories of teachers who made a positive difference in the lives of their students.
ISAY: And John, that goes back to when you asked me the question of why teachers. I mean, that's why. I mean, I think over the last year, the last 18 months, the last two years, teachers have been feeling kind of like punching bags, you know. And it's time for us as a country to turn that around and use this day and use every day after that to thank teachers for the influence they have on our lives.
DONVAN: A Judy Austin(ph) has written to us, and she says: If he didn't live in Florida and I in Idaho, I would talk with Dick Garten(ph). In 1956 and 1957 - so we're talking about a half a century ago - he taught me and a dozen other seniors at the Riverdale Country School in New York - from which, by the way, Neal Conan, the regular host of this show, graduated - neither of us knew it at the time, but his class set me on the road to becoming an historian. It led me to a career with the Idaho State Historical Society, and that's been a joy. Dick, who turned 90 last month, came to our 50th reunion in 2007, and we had two wonderful long conversations, not as teacher and student but as colleagues and friends. I'm sure I could - I'm not sure if I could ever adequately tell him how deep his influence was on me.
That's pretty lovely and really hits the note well. Let's go back to calls, and you're lining up, and in Portland I want to have Hank(ph) join the program. Hello, Hank.
FRANK: Hi, there. It's actually Frank(ph). That's okay. I went to a day school in New York City called St. Vernon's(ph) School, and the previous - I just heard the lady was talking about '56 and '57. Well, I've got '58 handled, for fourth grade. And a man named Don Sema(ph) saw the gentle boy in me and coaxed - tried to help me protect myself.
And we had boxing and fencing, and he was so gentle, but he was wonderful about it. And I called - I tried to look him up, and he had already died, unfortunately. But what I have done is I have two girls, 23 and 17 now, and from the get-go, I said to them: You know what? You need to thank your teachers. You need to thank your teachers.
And their eyes glazed over initially, but now they do it, and they go back, and they see the eyes light up. And it's one of the most valuable things we can ever do.
DONVAN: Yeah, you really do feel as though you're delivering a present by telling a teacher, you know, it was all worth it, in a way.
DONVAN: In a way you're telling a teacher it was all worth it, everything they did.
FRANK: Oh absolutely, and it's - they've devoted their lives to it. And as a child in the classroom, you'd go oh God, the teacher, you know. Well, no, they've devoted their lives to teaching you, and they want you to learn. And we don't realize that passion that some of them even have when we're younger. That's okay; we can't yet.
DONVAN: Hank, how much - Frank, I'm sorry. How much of it do you think the great teachers stand out because of the not-great teachers?
FRANK: I'm sorry, I'm on a cell phone.
DONVAN: I'm wondering how much is the fact that the great teachers stand out due to the fact that maybe we have some not-so-great teachers. With me that's the case.
FRANK: Oh, I am so sorry. It's a cell phone, and you may want to just get me off the air.
DONVAN: Frank, thanks...
FRANK: How much do teachers stand out? They...
DONVAN: Frank, I will let you go. But thanks very much...
FRANK: Okay, my apologies.
DONVAN: Thanks for your patience.
FRANK: Thank you so much.
DONVAN: Another email has come in from a Carlene Watson(ph), who says: My sixth grade English teacher, Mrs. Williams(ph), opened my eyes and ears to the beauty of the English language and especially to English grammar. And Dave Isay, I have a sense of a little bit of a pattern of English teachers and history teachers.
ISAY: Yeah, I guess we're hearing a lot of those, yeah.
DONVAN: And we're not hearing an awful lot of physics teachers. But what does that have to do with, do you think?
ISAY: I think it's a random sampling. I think it just happens to be what you're hearing. But that's - what we've heard over the last week, what we've heard over the last six months, is it's across the board. It's science teachers, it's every kind of teacher you can imagine. There are other kinds of teachers as well.
You know, I'm looking - I'm in a studio looking at Larry Josephson(ph), who is the engineer here, who created freeform radio in the 1960s and influenced a whole generation of people on the radio and just changed the whole face of radio. And there are all kinds of teachers and all kinds of mentors we should be saying thank you to.
DONVAN: I want to play something, it's actually not from the project but gives us a sense of how powerful the emotions can be on this. In - back in the '80s, Oprah Winfrey began to talk about a teacher she had named Ms. Duncan(ph), who at a time in Oprah Winfrey's life when she was quite young and vulnerable, asked her simply to lay out the graham crackers for a daily ceremony in the school.
And she said that that made such an enormous impact on her, that - here's how Oprah described it.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE OPRAH WINFREY SHOW")
OPRAH WINFREY: You know what I loved you so much? Because you always let me lead devotion.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Bless your heart.
WINFREY: And we had graham crackers, and (unintelligible). I can't believe I'm crying like this. But Mrs. Duncan would let me lead devotion. And remember when I was going to be a missionary, and I used to collect money on the playground?
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Oh my.
DONVAN: Wow, it really comes across there. But there's a second piece of tape I'd like to play, and this is from the project. There was an encounter recorded for StoryCorps by - it was actually initiated by a neurosurgeon who had performed surgery on a patient, and the patient whose life was saved asked the neurosurgeon: Who inspired you, who made you into the doctor you are today?
And he mentioned a Mr. Siedlecki(ph), and the patient said: You've got to call up Mr. Siedlecki and thank him. So they got together and recorded a conversation and talked about the power of this one.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: I picked the phone up and you go: Hey, it's Lee Bono(ph). I said Lee, 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.
DONVAN: Wow. You've put that one on the site as one of your favorites on the StoryCorps site. Why does that one speak out to you so much?
ISAY: Well, you know, all StoryCorps stories we see as - we see as equally valuable and equally important in people's lives. But some of them have a kind of a universal quality, and that, you know, that's just an amazing story.
What actually happened was that the - he had a patient who had a tumor on his speech center, and when he got his speech back, the first thing he said was you need to track down that teacher who inspired you.
You know, and again, I mean, I think it goes back to that - to what Mr. Spizzirri said: I never knew I had an impact on anyone. I mean, the kind of - the simple act of saying thank you can make such a profound difference in people's lives.
DONVAN: In a few minutes, when we come back from a break in a few minutes, we'd actually like to hear from the teachers' side of this experience. If there are teachers out there who have had that phone call, I'd like to know what it was like from your side of the experience and why it had that meaning for you, and did you ever see it coming, did you know that you had made that sort of impact?
Let's go to another call. Melissa(ph) is in Vernon, New Jersey. Melissa, welcome to the program.
DONVAN: Hi, Melissa, you're on the air.
MELISSA: Oh, hello? Are you kidding? I just lost - hello?
DONVAN: No, we hear you. You're there.
MELISSA: Oh hi. I'm sorry, cell phone. My name's Melissa. I want to thank Ms. Lang(ph) from North Farmington, New Jersey. She was my third grade teacher in 1983. And she was a first grade teacher who just was so enthusiastic and loved us so much, and she read "Charlotte's Web" aloud to us, and we all cried.
And it just made me realize how powerful literature is and how powerful a good teacher could be, and from eight years old I knew I wanted to be just like her, and I became an English teacher.
DONVAN: Ah, and are you having the same impact, do you think, on students yourself now?
MELISSA: Oh, I don't know. I hope so. You know, I do have kids that come back and say thank you, and of course I burst into tears because you don't know while it's happening. You know, you hope that you're getting through to them, and sometimes they'll come back a few years later and say thank you, you know, your class was tough, but I appreciate it because I was ready for high school.
MELISSA: You know, it - you hope so. And when they do come back, it's the best feeling in the world.
DONVAN: Melissa, thank...
DONVAN: Yeah. Thank you.
MELISSA: Thank you.
DONVAN: Thanks very much for your call. Another story of an English teacher.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
DONVAN: Let's go to Neville in Northampton, Massachusetts. Neville, another English teacher story? Neville? Neville, hi, you're on the air. I'm sorry. I made a mistake.
NEVILLE: Hi. Can you hear me?
DONVAN: Yeah. I can hear you now.
NEVILLE: Hi. I have an English and mathematics teacher story.
DONVAN: Ah, OK.
NEVILLE: I'd like to say thank you to Clyde Pesprestige(ph) back in Romsey, in Hampshire, in the south of England. He was my math teacher from September '74 until the summer - September '69 until the summer of '74. I'm not much good at math, I was always much interested in the arts and painting and in writing, specifically, but he was the coolest guy. He had so much time for kids. He introduced me personally to music and to David Bowie, which is the thing that directly brought me to America. And to cut a long story short, I just got a deal to write my biography, and the first page when I started doing notes a month ago, I put Clyde Pesprestige's name down there, fair and square, on page one.
DONVAN: Oh, my goodness.
NEVILLE: He changed my life.
DONVAN: Have you ever had a chance...
NEVILLE: Nothing to do with math.
DONVAN: Have you had a chance to thank him personally?
NEVILLE: Yup. I managed to track him down through my father about 10 years after I left school, and I was lucky. I got to see him most Christmases when I went back to England. Until about 15 years ago, when we lost track. And so I was quite persistent. I would see him across town in Romsey, and I'd dashed over, and I just had to say thank you. I was quite gushing. I'm doing this now. I'm doing that. He'd say calm down, calm down, it's OK. And I know he had this effect on lots of kids.
But the interesting thing is that - that it had nothing to do with the subject he was teaching. He was just generally empathetic. He was a cool guy, and he just had time for the kids. And it was his – his just passion for us that made me have complete trust in him. And when he used to bring records into school, I used to, you know, take them home and play them, and he changed my life in a way, nothing...
NEVILLE: ...to do with math.
DONVAN: In this case, I...
NEVILLE: Just a nice man.
DONVAN: I can really see how it stayed with you throughout your whole life. Neville, thank you very much and...
NEVILLE: You're welcome. Thank you. Happy Thanksgiving.
DONVAN: ...and good luck with the book. We are talking with all of you about your favorite teachers and what you want to say, how you would thank them, how you would want to say thank you. This is an NPR special. Dave Isay is our guest. He is the founder of StoryCorps and in a sense the reason that we are doing this broadcast because of the project that you have launched in particular this year encouraging people to thank students and - students to thank their teachers.
And as you mentioned earlier, these sorts of conversations are not those that will go into the archive at the Library of Congress. But I just want to take a minute and talk a little bit more broadly about that archive and about what is there. By this time you say you've recorded or we have recorded and supplied - we the people have recorded and supplied to StoryCorps - somewhere in the tens of thousands of conversations?
ISAY: That's right. We've done 40,000 interviews with 80,000 people, because almost everybody comes in pairs. So you would bring your teacher or your mom or your grandmother, whoever you want to honor by listening to their story.
DONVAN: And how long would you sit down for a session of...
ISAY: The sessions are 40 minutes. And you know, many people - and it's with a trained facilitator who works for StoryCorps, who's in one of these booths with you. And many people think of it as, you know, if I had 40 minutes left to live, what would I say to, you know, Mr. Spizzirri? They're very intense conversations. And in many ways, you know, because of the nature of these conversations, people know that their great-great-great-great-grandkids will get to hear their grandmother's voice or whatever kind of angel in their life they've brought to the booth.
You know, they're very much of a kind of transmission of wisdom sort of oral history where people talk about what they've learned, how they want to be remembered.
DONVAN: How do you...
ISAY: So it's - yeah?
DONVAN: How do you see it being used? And I ask this, you know, I - we all know that there's such a scarcity of records of humanity prior to - about 2,000 years ago. We're looking at pottery shards in the dirt and using archeology to understand who we were. On the other hand, nowadays, with digitized information, there is so much. I recently was going through a hard drive and found thousands and thousands of photographs of my kids, more than I can ever keep track of or look at. And in a sense you're creating an archive of that volume. This thing will be there and residing if you - if things work out - for hundreds of years, but there will be so much of it.
DONVAN: How do you actually see it being used?
ISAY: Well, I think it's going to be extremely important for families, of course, to be able to track down this record of their ancestors. And I think what we have in these 40 minutes is a very condensed story. So we've almost kind of done the editing for you. This is the important information that this person in your life wants to transmit to the future generations. This is who they are as a human being. And, you know, as, you know, I know you - the power of the voice, the power of kind of an honest conversation between two people.
I also think that it's going to be an incredibly important resource for historians. You know, Studs Terkel, who cut the ribbon on our first booth eight years ago, who has since passed away, the great oral historian, talks - talked so much about a bottom-up history. History is so often told from the top-down, but history through our voices, through our stories and our memories, I think, adds a really rich component to what we know about our times.
DONVAN: Who was your teacher? And we're being asked specifically by Gary who sent an email into us who wants to know: Do you - can you give us the name of the teacher that you would want to thank?
ISAY: I - well, it was - Miss Moustakas(ph) was the person that I wrote to last week, but I - and I also want to thank – I also want to thank Gary Covino(ph) , who taught me radio 25 years ago and had a huge - protected me in my early days in radio and just had a huge impact on my life. There are many teachers who I'd like to thank. And again, what we're trying to do tomorrow, we hope the whole country - this is kind of a modest public broadcasting campaign, and John, I hope you'll do a tweet as well, about Mr. Spizzirri. We're asking people to - if you can't interview a teacher, send an email, write a post on Facebook. You can tag it at StoryCorps. You can do a tweet with the hashtag thank a teacher.
We just want to try to see if - and tell everybody you know to do this. It takes about two minutes. And as you've heard from all these phone calls, it's just a wonderful experience that means something to people.
DONVAN: All right. And when we return from our break, we would like to hear from teachers who can tell us about the students who made an impact on them and what it means to be thanked by them. Do you need the thanks, or could you just go on merrily knowing that you did your job well? We'll be talking again also with Dave Isay about StoryCorps' National Day of Listening and a little bit more about the program. So what teacher out there can tell us who's been thanked or who wants to be thanked and why? Our number is 1-800-989-8255. The email address is email@example.com. I'm John Donvan, and you're listening to NPR News.
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DONVAN: This is a Thanksgiving special. I'm John Donvan. Well, so far this hour we have heard from a lot of students who wanted to thank the teachers who inspired them or made a difference in their lives, which is the theme of tomorrow's National Day of Listening, thank a teacher. Of course there's the other side, and that is the teachers. So teachers, now we would like to hear from you. What does it mean to be thanked by a student? Our number is 1-800-989-8255. Our email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.
And you can join the conversation on our website, go to npr.org and click on TALK OF THE NATION. And we have Phoebe in Lafayette, Louisiana. Phoebe, I understand you've pulled off the side of the road to talk with us.
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PHOEBE: Yes, that's right.
DONVAN: Well, that was the safe move. Tell us your story.
PHOEBE: All right. I myself am a retired French and English high school teacher. I taught for 36 years. You asked if it was important that teachers get thank you's - it certainly is because the money we make...
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PHOEBE: ...is not enough to give us thanks. Twenty or so years after one of my students retire - after one of my students graduated from high school, I got a phone call out of the blue from her. She says Mrs. Trotter, this is Amanda. Do you remember me? My last name was such and such. I said sure I do. How are you? She started crying.
PHOEBE: She said, Miss Trotter, you never knew this, but when I was in your class, my parents were going through a very ugly divorce. I came to school every day hanging my head. She said I'd go into your class, and you'd make a joke or something, or she said some other student would give a stupid answer, and you'd look at me, and you kind of wink, so that only I would see. And she said for that one hour it just lifted my spirits. If it had not been for you, I would have quit high school and left home.
DONVAN: Phoebe, did you have any idea at the time what you were doing?
PHOEBE: No. I - she always looked kind of down, but she never approached me to speak to me about it, and I didn't feel that she would welcome it if I asked. I just gave her a little extra attention. That meant so much to me.
DONVAN: All this time later, it's still totally alive to you.
PHOEBE: I start crying every time I think about it. I have looked up her picture in the yearbook and cut it out and posted it up on my refrigerator, so that every time I look at it, I think of her and how I was appreciated by her. That means so much. I do hope parents understand how much teachers appreciate that.
DONVAN: Phoebe, thank you so much for your call. Thanks for joining us.
PHOEBE: Thank you. Bye-bye.
DONVAN: Let's go to Guillermo in West End, Florida. Guillermo, welcome to the program. Guillermo?
GUILLERMO: Hello. Hi. Sorry. Good evening, gentlemen. Happy Thanksgiving and thank you for having me.
GUILLERMO: I am currently 26. I've been a high school teacher, and my last teaching assignment was at a local community college. In three days I am leaving for boot camp for the Marine Corps, and I constantly - well, I get - one student joined the Marine Corps, and I never tell them I'm leaving for the Marine Corps. That's none of their business. But one of them joined because he later told me I was inspired by who you were and he wanted to thank me. Not only that, I see students that I taught at high school at the recruiting station, and they tell me, hey, that – I used to teach intensive reading, and they tell me, hey, thank you so much for your teaching.
DONVAN: And so - and I want to - I'm sorry to interrupt, but I just want to ask you: How does that hit you, those thanks?
GUILLERMO: I mean, it is - it kind of brings the circle together. I am - I became a teacher, and I joined the Marine Corps because Dr. Christina Weygand(ph), an English teacher - I went to school in Mexico - she basically - she doesn't know this, maybe I should tell her, but she instilled the values of honor, courage and commitment in my life. And it is because of her I became an English teacher, despite getting kicked out of my house because of it. And it is because of her that I got inspired to go into the corps.
DONVAN: All right. Guillermo, thank you very much.
ISAY: Guillermo, tell her tomorrow. Tell her tomorrow.
GUILLERMO: I'm actually - I'll try to get a hold of her.
ISAY: Thank you.
GUILLERMO: Thank you so much, gentlemen.
DONVAN: Thanks, Guillermo. Thanks very much. I want to read an email from a Jay Neiman(ph), who writes: I was preparing my fifth grade class for the upcoming sex education class by telling them about Tommy Smith, who stole a kiss from me in Miss Thomson's cloakroom in the back of her fifth grade classroom. I included in the story that he died in the Vietnam War. A year later, my student Roberta brought me a rubbing from the Vietnam Wall in Washington that said Thomas K. Smith. Wow. I will never forget her. That is a fantastic story. Jim in Belmont, California, welcome to the program.
JIM: Hi. I'm a retired special education teacher. I taught severely handicapped. But my story begins when I was struggling to become a teacher. I have cerebral palsy. And I had a kid I had helped in the - during the Watts riot period as a substitute. And to make a long story short, his mother invited me to her wedding at a time when I'm about ready to give up on teaching, and she thanked me for the help she - I had given. I went on to teach in Kern County. I taught a muscular dystrophy student, and so on. So if she hadn't - that she thanked me really encouraged me to go on.
DONVAN: Jim - yeah. Jim, thank you very much for your call. It sounds like you're passing it forward. Thanks for it. I want to play another tape from - another recording from the StoryCorps project. This one is interesting, Dave, because it's, again, about what inspired a teacher, how it went from a student to a teacher, and this one is fascinating. A young man named Ayodeji Ogunniyi told a story about how his father was murdered and how he temporarily lost all touch with the world because of it.
His father was murdered by three teenagers. I think one was in the 20s, but three very young men from disadvantaged backgrounds. And he was angry. At the same time, he had been already enrolled in a program where he was tutoring people from the same area that the murderers came from. And one day, he was working with one of these kids, and he discovered that the boy was crying because he couldn't read. And that moment led to his reaffirmation as a teacher. Let's listen to Ayodeji's story.
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AYODEJI OGUNNIYI: And I went out to talk to him, and he just broke down. He said: It's hard for me to read. There are many people that cry because they're hurt, they've been neglected. But to cry because you couldn't read, that spoke volumes to me. So we got him in some other programs, and he started to read. And it just was like this gift that money can't buy for him. And by me giving that to him, I totally forgot about the pain of the murder, and I wanted to continue to give more of what I had to heal.
DONVAN: And so he's stayed on in teaching.
ISAY: Actually, John - John, I just want to say, he was actually studying to be a doctor and was tutoring on the side when his dad, who was a cab driver, was murdered, and then decided to switch careers and become a teacher.
DONVAN: Wow. It really tells us that there are - again, with all of the pressures that teachers are under now, that there are - there really are ways that you can get something back from it, and it's not going to be the salary, but you really get something rich back from it. And it sounds as though what we're hearing from the teachers who are calling that being told thank you tells you that you're getting it back. It tells you that you've completed the circle.
ISAY: Absolutely. You know, the stories we're hearing are very moving, you know. And I - it speaks so much to what StoryCorps is about, which is, you know, we're surrounded by so much white noise and so much nonsense and distraction, you know. And just the act of taking a couple of minutes to say thank you...
ISAY: ...can have such a profound impact on people's lives. You know, one of the things we hope to do at StoryCorps is just kind of pull people into the present and remind them, you know, to say the things to the people in their lives that they want to say now.
DONVAN: Let's go to Esther in Denver. Esther, you're on the program. Welcome.
DONVAN: Hi. We hear you. And tell us your story, Esther.
ESTHER: Well, I went to Greece years ago, kind of a - as an extended tourist, and ended up teaching college English and humanities on a Navy base and - actually, a number of bases - back when there was plenty of money in the military to pay for tuition. And I worked mostly in a small Navy communications station. And it was a small program, so I was really the only English teacher for a long time. I had amazing students who actually thanked me quite a lot because they had never have the experience of writing or reading literature, and appreciated it.
But mostly, I realized that English is the kind of subject that takes experience and years to sink in, literature and even writing. And so most of my students who are in the military got transferred. I didn't get to hear thanks later unless they happen to be transferred back, or civilians. And then sometimes they'd say, do you remember you said six years ago in that class? So I think English teachers get thanked in the long term because it's experiential. It's not just factual.
DONVAN: You mean, it takes a while for it to sink in - first of all, for the lessons and the skills to sink in, and then it takes even longer to realize why those lessons and skills might have actually enriched your life.
ESTHER: Exactly. And the reason I was hoping you'd take my call is that I hear people talking all the time - with the cost of education going up, people are talking more and more about college education particularly needing to be practical so you can get a job. But it doesn't take into account the richness of education and how it shapes your entire life. So when I did get those things, it was enormously meaningful to me.
DONVAN: Esther, thank you very much for your call.
ESTHER: Thank you.
DONVAN: And now we're going to be joined by Fran in Sacramento. Fran, you're on the program.
FRAN: Hi. Thank you so much. So I was a kindergarten teacher in the Vallejo Schools in California. And at Glen Cove Elementary, we have the tradition of, at sixth grade graduation, we had a big ceremony. So on two different years, those parents, two different sets of parents from the sixth grade came back to me, their child's kindergarten teacher, and thanked me. And they were very specific about what they thanked me for, for their child. And it's so unusual for a kindergarten teacher to get any thanks.
DONVAN: Why is that? But why should kindergarten teachers be low in the thanking list?
FRAN: Because by the times students move on to high school, they remember their high school teachers. Most kids don't remember their kindergarten teachers. It's the way - is what I think.
DONVAN: Really? Oh, well, in that...
FRAN: You remember your kindergarten teacher?
DONVAN: I do, but the teacher I want to thank, again, is my first grade teacher. Sister Mary Alice taught me to read...
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DONVAN: ...and that was invaluable skill. But I...
FRAN: That's wonderful. And have you thanked her?
DONVAN: I have not, but I'm going to take Dave Isay's advice and do it right away.
FRAN: Oh, great. Yes. And so this is a wonderful show. And thank you so much.
DONVAN: All right, Fran. Thanks very much for your call. I want to go to another email. This is from Laura Speaker(ph), who's just written us. She says: I am a teacher who's been thanked in the form of a grand slam. I was asked to attend a baseball game of one of my sixth grade boys, J.P. Dailey(ph). It was a Friday afternoon. It was kind of rainy and I was tired, but I agree to attend the game. So missing it really wasn't an option.
And when J.P. got to bat, the bases were loaded. And before he swung, he suddenly turned to the stands and he pointed the bat at me with a most solemn look on his face. I was stunned and grateful that the person next to me told me to return the motion to J.P. So J.P. turned and he hit the ball out of the park. And he rounded all of the bases, and he kept running until he was off the field and ran right up to me. And he said: You see, Mrs. Speaker? And I said, yeah, everybody saw that one. And then he said: I knew I could hit it because you always made me feel like I can do anything. Needless to say - she writes this - needless to say, rain was not the only moisture on my face.
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DONVAN: And then she adds an interesting afterthought: What did it mean to me? She says: I became the student. I learned that I may be affecting students and never know it. I felt a renewed energy and devotion to my students. The next day, J.P. presented me with the game ball, which sat on my desk as a daily reminder to always be in tune with what I can learn from my students. Signed, Laura Speaker.
What a fantastic story. It sounds like one you should get on tape, I think, Dave Isay.
ISAY: John, email that to me. It's a great story.
DONVAN: All right. We are talking on this Thanksgiving Day special about teachers. What teachers would you thank? And what does it mean for teachers to be thanked by you? And Dave Isay is our guest, as the inspiration behind this topic and with the StoryCorps program that is asking people to take their teachers aside and thank them, or just drop them a note or a Facebook posting or a Twitter message. It matters. It's important. Let's go to Jo(ph) in Stockton, California. Jo, you're on the program.
JO: Yes. I'm calling because I taught sixth grade a number of years ago and had a migrant student who would leave for two months every year. And I always wondered what happened to her. And one of the projects we did in that sixth grade was PowerPoint presentations for their country reports. And I didn't think too much of it until she came back when she was in high school and told me how much that meant to her, that she felt like I treated the students as if they were high school students, and she could (unintelligible) herself in high school and succeeding. And here she was, a junior in high school, getting straight A's.
JO: And it - I really appreciated that thank you, and it continues to inspire me to set high goals for my students and...
DONVAN: So that's an interesting question. Do thanks, you think, make you a better teacher or give you the energy to keep going?
JO: Absolutely, because I teach students who come from very needy homes, and there are so many barriers to them succeeding in school. And sometimes, you wonder what happens to them. And it really makes it worthwhile to have them come back and say that, yes, it did make a difference. I was able to overcome those barriers that I had because of something that you did in that class.
DONVAN: All right. Jo, I want to thank you for your call. And I think we have time for one more caller. I want to go to Riva(ph) in Cleveland. And, Riva, I apologize, but I need to ask you to be brief. But I would love to hear your story.
RIVA: I'm a retired teacher. I'm still teaching. I taught at Cleveland Heights High School in Cleveland, Ohio. My students, one of them, came - wrote me an email from Munich, Germany, to tell me how much my teaching French had meant to her and helped her. It meant the world to me, and I must say this: When I was at Heights, I had a homeroom teacher, Edith Mainland(ph), whom everyone thought was really very difficult. She turned out to change her life around. That's the reason I became I teacher. I'm still teaching. And every hug I get from a kid that I teach now, I tell you, it touches my heart.
DONVAN: And it sounds as though you're also telling us that the teacher who's nice and sweet not necessarily is the one you're going to remember. But sometimes it's the real tough one.
RIVA: The tough teacher, because she made me what I am, and she made me into a human being, but also into a compassionate, rigorous human being who let her students really do what they could do.
DONVAN: Wow. Terrific story, Riva. I want to thank you very much for joining us on the program. And I also want to thank Dave Isay, who's the founder of StoryCorps and who established the National Day of Listening. So his encouragement is: Say thanks to a teacher. And if you can, record it and save it. Thanks very much for joining us, Dave. And...
ISAY: As always, it's been great.
DONVAN: And all of us thanking - this is slightly different, to thank a teacher, when you have a teacher in the family. And so, for all of the teaching, I want to say thanks to my favorite teacher, my mom, who taught six grade for 25 years at School 30 in Yonkers, New York. Oh, and my dad, who taught junior high English at John Philip Sousa in the Bronx, and Nancy, my sister, who teaches in Pitman, New Jersey, and my Aunts Peggy and Grace, who are high school teachers in New York public school system, and my brother Jim, who taught special ed, and my grandfather Walter, a long-departed high school biology teacher. Thanks to all of you from me, so you all know it may sometimes seemed like a thankless job, but not all the time. Happy Thanksgiving to everyone. I'm John Donvan. This has been a Thanksgiving Day special, from NPR News.
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