'People Helped You, Whether You Knew It Or Not'

Aug 25, 2017

William Weaver was 14 and a rising high school sophomore in the fall of 1964.

He was also one of 14 black students integrating the all-white West High School in Knoxville, Tenn.

"As soon as we got into the school, the principal was calling the roll. He said, 'Bill Weaver,' and I said, 'My name is William.' And he said, 'Oh, you're a smart N-word.' I'd been in school maybe 30 minutes and he suspended me," Weaver, 67, says, while recounting his first day at school during a recent visit to StoryCorps.

Weaver, who is now the chief of surgery at Fayetteville VA Medical Center in North Carolina, says he doesn't remember a day that a teacher didn't tell him that he "didn't belong."

"We'd have a test and they'd stand over me and then just snatch the paper out from under and say, 'Time is up,' " he says. "The first report card I got all F's, including [physical education]. So I've gone from being a good student to starting to think, well, maybe I don't belong. Maybe I am dumb."

One evening he was at home and Edward Hill, his seventh-grade science teacher from the black school, came by to visit.

"He said, 'You know, I understand that you're having some trouble,' and I said, 'Yeah, Mr. Hill. I think they're trying to run me away,' " Weaver recounts.

Mr. Hill asked Weaver to come to his old junior high school after school, every day and Saturday mornings.

"And so every day waiting for me would be Mr. Hill with assorted other teachers — the English teacher, the math teacher — and they tutored me. And once I got past those F's, I stopped doubting myself," he says. "But learning became almost a spiteful activity to prove the teachers at the high school wrong. And no matter what I did academically or athletically, I was never recognized at that school."

Weaver also says he never had a conversation with a counselor about going to college. But, to his surprise, during his senior year, he got a letter telling him he had been awarded a scholarship. Weaver accepted it and went on to attend Howard University.

Thirty-seven years later, Weaver was at his older brother's funeral and saw Mr. Hill.

"And I said, 'You know, Mr. Hill, if I had not gotten that scholarship I don't know what would have happened. And I don't know how I got the scholarship because I never even applied for it," Weaver says. "And he said, 'I know, because I filled in the application and sent it off for you.'

"So Mr. Hill stepped in and, I believe, saved my life," though, at the time Weaver says he didn't realize how much he was being helped.

"And that's the ignorance of youth and the wisdom of age when you look back on it you say, 'How did I get here? How did I make it?' Because people helped you, whether you knew it or not," says Weaver.

Audio produced for Morning Edition by Jud Esty-Kendall. StoryCorps is a national nonprofit that gives people the chance to interview friends and loved ones about their lives. These conversations are archived at the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress, allowing participants to leave a legacy for future generations. Learn more, including how to interview someone in your life, at StoryCorps.org.

Copyright 2017 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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AILSA CHANG, HOST:

Time now for StoryCorps. In 1964, William Weaver was a high school sophomore. That fall, he and 13 other black students integrated the all-white West High School in Knoxville, Tenn. At StoryCorps, he remembered his first day.

WILLIAM WEAVER: As soon as we got into the school, the principal was calling the roll. He said, Bill Weaver. And I said, my name is William. And he said, oh, you're a smart N-word. I'd been in school maybe 30 minutes and he suspended me. I don't remember a day that a teacher did not tell me that I didn't belong. We'd have a test and they'd stand over me then to snatch the paper out from under and say, time's up. The first report card I got all F's, including phys ed. So I've gone from being a good student to starting to think, well, maybe I don't belong. Maybe I am dumb.

I was home one evening, wondering what I'm going to do, when there's a knock on the door and it's my seventh grade science teacher from the black school, Mr. Hill. He said, you know, I understand that you're having some trouble. Then I said, Mr. Hill, I think they're trying to run me away. And he said, what I need you to do is to come back to the junior high school after school every day and Saturday mornings. He said, can you do that? I said, yes, sir.

And so every day waiting for me would be Mr. Hill with assorted other teachers - the English teacher, the math teacher. And they tutored me. And once I got past those F's, I stopped doubting myself. But learning became almost a spiteful activity to prove the teachers at the high school wrong. And no matter what I did academically or athletically, I was never recognized at that school. I never had a conversation with the counselor about going to college. But during my senior year, I got a letter saying you've been awarded (laughter) a scholarship.

So I ended up going to Howard University. And 37 years after I left high school, I'm at my older brother's funeral talking to Mr. Hill. And I said, you know, Mr. Hill, if I had not gotten that scholarship, I don't know what would have happened. And I don't know how I got the scholarship because I never even applied for it. And he said, I know because I filled in the application and sent it out for you.

So Mr. Hill stepped in and, I believe, saved my life. And at the time, I didn't realize how much I was being helped. And that's the ignorance of youth and the wisdom of age when you look back on it and you say, how did I get here? How did I make it? Because people help you whether you knew it or not.

CHANG: That's Dr. William Lynn Weaver remembering his teacher, Edward Hill. Dr. Weaver is now the chief of surgery at the Fayetteville, N.C, VA Medical Center. His interview will be archived in the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress.

(SOUNDBITE OF BLUE DOT SESSIONS' "STEP IN STEP OUT") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.