Today’s hero was not disabled. He was not nominated for his calm face in the silver lining of calamity or sickness. He was not a celebrity, nor did he ever wish to be. But, he did change the world, even if in small ways. He did it quietly. He did it with passion. He did it in ways that perhaps he never would know. His name was Mr. Ledbetter. He died in July of 2005.
Mr. Ledbetter was a professor of literature in Dumas, Texas. And, doing what good teachers do best, he worked each day to install his own passions into the hearts and souls of his pupils. His life was words, and for 41 years, he lived and breathed them with unending enthusiasm at his community college.
His was a job uncoveted by most. He understood going into it, that the majority of his students would have little interest in what he was offering. He knew from the beginning that for most, a seat in his class was nothing more than a check mark toward their bigger goals of being lawyers, teachers, doctors, or businessmen. That didn’t matter to him. From the beginning, he also made a decision that if anybody was required to sit through his class, they wouldn’t finish the course without at least knowing why he loved what he loved.
And so, he required exactness and perfection from his students with every essay or writing he asked them to submit. He was strict in his grading. Some of his students would say he was brutal. Many would tout that this methods were too difficult or that he expected too much from them. But Mr. Ledbetter did not let that change what he believed to be important. He knew that seated within the sea of blank stares, were those who loved to write, loved to read, loved words, and simply needed to discover that tiny flame within.
Joi Weaver was one such student.
She was a shy girl, doing her best to survive high school. Her father, a man who loved poetry and literature, had always shared his favorite works with Joi. She learned to cherish these things, but eventually felt that other kids her age had negative interest in what she loved, so she stopped pursuing reading and writing, and was content letting her passion for it dissipate to nothing.
Until, that is, she took a seat at the feet of Mr. Ledbetter.
He was no less brutal with Joi. He demanded the same perfection from her assignments as anyone else. In fact, one day, he asked her for more. He told her she should enter her work in a writing contest being held more than 50 miles away. She declined. By her own definition she was reserved and had no desire to drive a long distance to compete in a room full of strangers.
But Mr. Ledbetter persisted. He saw something in Joi, even if she didn’t yet.
And finally, she relented. She got in her car and made the drive.
And the funny thing is, she won. In fact, she won the highest honor in the competition. It changed her life. It changed her perspective. One small victory suddenly made her feel that it was okay to keep her face buried in books instead of playing sports or going shopping. One small victory made her feel that the words she could push through her hands could actually be read and appreciated. One small victory took that small flame and fanned it.
Joi didn’t come back and tell Mr. Ledbetter that she had won the grand prize. She was still very hesitant to share her work, even though it had just been publicly honored and validated. His colleagues made sure to tell him, though, and he immediately demanded a copy from her. She gave it to him, awaiting his usual red slashes with wincing eyes.
Instead, he snatched it and hurried from the room. Several minutes later he could be heard in the hallway, asking another professor to read his student’s brilliant work. He then entered with a stack of stapled pages, and handed one to each student in the class. It was her essay. He made Joi, and her essay, the entire focus of class that day. He made sure that every person in that room appreciated her talents and abilities. He made sure that her accomplishments were recognized.
It was on that day that a great writer was born. Joi would spend the rest of the year soaking in the energy and passion of Mr. Ledbetter. She would skip breaks and the two of them would excitedly dive into her new favorite poem or essay. Later in life, she would go on to publish a major anthology, write several novels, and find overly-satisfying employment as a professional copywriter.
All because one man was as direct and demanding as he knew he needed to be. All because one man showed excitement for the things he was most excited about. All because one man put his arm around a “shy girl” and helped her see that she carried something extraordinary inside.
Joi was one of many to whom this man gave a voice. Strictness and exactness aside, he was loved by many. He was honored in his profession. And he never chose anything less than a person’s best to both expect and appreciate.
Mr. Ledbetter didn’t run into burning buildings. He didn’t chase purse snatchers or trip up bank robbers. He was a hero for a much different reason. And there are many who will always consider him theirs.
Gene Ledbetter certainly was a Saturday’s Hero.
Dan Pearce, Single Dad Laughing.
PS. Do you love poetry or literature? Do you love to lose yourself in a good book? Why? I have my reasons for loving it; I’m just wondering what yours might be. Also, have you ever had a teacher that really influenced you?
Many thanks to Joi for sharing her perspective and love for this man with me. Each Saturday I spotlight one of my readers’ everyday heroes. The world is full of incredible, unsung, and inspirational people. They give their lives and time to others, they devote themselves to causes, they overcome obstacles, and they make us want to improve. Heroes come in many forms. Who was yours?
If you have a hero that you’d like me to spotlight, please send an email with the subject “This is my hero”. Sum up why they are a hero in 300 words or less. If I can spotlight them, I will write you back for follow-up information.