Growing up on an isolated tobacco farm in rural Virginia in the early '50s, Ella Avery was accustomed to hard times. When she was seven, her family's farmhouse burned to the ground, and they lost everything. Her father dragged an old chicken coop up to the smokehouse and improvised a makeshift homestead that sheltered the family for over a year. Eight people slept in twobeds. After a new house was finally built, officials periodically showed up to nail a sign on the old oak tree at the edge of the property. The message was ominous: "This farm will be sold at public auction to satisfy delinquent payments." Her father always managed to borrow enough to fend off disaster, but Ella's fear never went away. "I grew up," she says, "with a sense of impending loss."
Ellawould find her salvation in school, even as a C student, thanks to one teacher. It was Mr. Miller who encouraged her to think about life beyond that tobacco farm. And now it is Ella who's finding ways to help and inspire others.
As soon as Ella and her four brothers and two sisters were big enough to carry a bucket, they were out in the fields. "I did everything there was to do," she recalls."Tobacco stringer, leaf handler, planter, water boy." Depending on the season, the children were up at daybreak to work before school, then back in the fields until sundown.
The local school board operated a one-room schoolhouse on the family land. From grades one to five, the Averys and neighbor children in Meredithville, a tiny community 20 miles from the North Carolina border, all had oneteacher. In the school's single room, little huddles of desks represented each class. "It was grand and glorious to me," says Ella.
But when she moved on to middle school in a nearby town, Ella was alarmingly behind her new classmates. Not knowing her times tables, she was paralyzed with fear that the teacher who smacked students' hands with a yardstick would call on her. Ella kept her head down,trying not to be noticed, struggling to catch up and feeling like an outsider.
At James Solomon Russell High School in Lawrenceville, nine miles from the tobacco farm, things got worse. Schools in the South were still segregated, and Ella claims she experienced the worst discrimination of her life from black students with lighter skin and longer hair. "They were the cheerleaders and majorettes,the ones on the honor roll," she says. "I was one of those dark-skinned country children who didn't matter." Ella plugged along, rarely achieving a grade above C plus.
Then one day in biology class, when Ella was 15, a teacher named Mr. Miller changed everything. "He'd had polio as a child and walked with a limp. I think he had felt the ostracism and indifference I had felt," she says. Lookinghis students in the eye, Mr. Miller spoke passionately. "Just because you are not an honor roll student," he said, "does not mean you do not have a valuable contribution to make. The backbone of our society is the good, solid-C student. Some of you have to work the fields in the evening and do not have the time to study. But if you do your best, you have a gift to give."
Until then, Ella hadset her sights no higher than cosmetology school, though she found nothing about it exciting. But Mr. Miller's words resonated with her. "I believed him. And I kept thinking about it. He said if you were a solid C, you could do well. I was a solid C."
An announcement was made one morning directing all college-bound students to report to the cafeteria to take a test for scholarships. Ellaimpulsively stood up. Behind her, she heard someone say, "Are you going to college, Ella Avery?" Without missing a beat, she turned around. "Yes, I am," she said, and walked out the door.
When the results came back, Ella had won a scholarship to nearby St. Paul's College, one of 39 historically black institutions supported by the United Negro College Fund (UNCF), an organization...