Human kindness has tremendous power to fulfil human potential. Writing in the New York Times, Nicholas Kristof illustrates this story, which I’ve paraphrased with permission from Olly Neal:
In Arkansas in the late 1950s a black kid by the name of Olly Neal, shared a house with no electricity with 12 brothers and sisters. He attended a small school for black children. A smart boy with talent, energy and curiosity he nonetheless developed a reputation as a trouble maker – shoplifting and dissing his teachers. The school’s librarian was an African American woman named Mildred Grady. Ms Grady was a woman with a talent for seeing smart kids and she took it on herself to try to bring out Olly’s potential. Olly responded by mocking her and bringing her to tears. ‘I was not a nice kid. I was the only one who made her cry’, Olly Neal recalled.
One day in 1957 Olly skipped class and wandered into the library. He was captured by a book cover showing a woman wearing not very much. The book was The Treasure of Pleasant Valley by a black author named Frank Yearby. Not wanting to dent his reputation as a boy who didn’t care about study, Olly didn’t borrow the book, he just took it. Sneaking the book home, he read it from cover to cover and discovered that he loved it. Returning it back to the shelf he noticed another Frank Yearby book that he had missed seeing the first time. So he took that one as well. The same thing happened again and again and by the fourth book Neal was besotted with reading. Discovering reading as a thing he liked, Olly soon started reading literature and newspapers and magazines. He found that understanding about social issues and politics fuelled a dream to be part of this world. That dream was realised when Olly Neal went to college and on to law school and eventually became an important figure in the civil rights movement and the first African American to be appointed district prosecuting attorney in Arkansas.
That first book that Olly Neal stole? It wasn’t unseen. The librarian Ms Grady had quietly watched Olly take it. Her first reaction was that she should call him out. Then she realised that he was embarrassed to be seen as a reader, so she said nothing. Instead, she drove 70 miles to Memphis Tennessee on her Saturday off, to see if she could find another book by Yearby in the hope that it might captivate the truculent boy in whom she saw potential. She traipsed from bookstore to bookstore, eventually finding another book by Yearby and used her own money to pay for it. Meeting years later at a school reunion, Ms Grady told Neal that she was thrilled when he stole the second book as well. Twice more, Ms Grady gave up her Saturdays to drive miles to find books to be stolen by Olly Neal, that would end up transforming his life and the lives of all the people his success touched.