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