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 two beds. 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."
Ella would 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 one teacher. 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. Looking his 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 had set 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. Ella impulsively 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 dedicated to reducing financial barriers to higher education. Ella could barely believe it. "This was the turning point of my whole life," she says. "I got my foot in the door. It gave me a great sense of confidence." Her father had left school after the third grade; her mother had finished the seventh.
College wasn't easy. At the end of the first semester, Ella lost her scholarship after doing poorly on a world-history exam. But she didn't give up. She applied for student loans and worked two jobs: in the nursery school on campus during the week and in a barbecue spot all weekend. In the summers, she taught in the Head Start program and worked at an officers' club on a military base.
Ella graduated with a degree in elementary education on a Sunday in May 1967. Her proud family gave her a small suitcase, which she still has, as a graduation gift. That afternoon, she packed it and hitched a ride to Washington, D.C. On Monday morning, she went downtown to the school board and got a job in the public school system.
At the end of her first year, Ella entered the graduate program at George Washington University and continued to teach. "All my education until then had been segregated," she says. "I needed to prove to myself that I could compete with anyone." She received a master's in education in 1970, the same year she married Ron Smothers, an Army man stationed at the Pentagon. After he left the military, he joined Burger King Corporation as a district manager.
Over the next six years, Ella gave birth to two sons and taught in public schools in Miami; Royal Oak, Michigan; and San Diego. In 1976, after saving $10,000, the family opened its first Burger King in Los Angeles. Eventually Ella stopped teaching, and the couple expanded to six restaurants.
When they divorced, in 1992, Ella was left with two of the franchises, including one in the troubled Watts section of L.A. "I was determined to turn it around," she says, "and I did. Now it's one of my best-performing restaurants." She has since expanded to seven restaurants; this year, she will open the first of ten El Pollo Loco restaurants in the Norfolk area of her home state, Virginia.
In gratitude for what she has been able to achieve, Ella donates to St. Paul's College and the UNCF. And -- no surprise -- she is an ardent champion of the C student. It troubles her that the civic organizations and professional societies she belongs to inevitably choose honor students to receive scholarships. "These students will go on to college," she says. "The ones I want to help are the solid-C students, like I was, who just need help and direction. These are the ones we are losing. That's why any deserving employee in any of my Burger King restaurants who registers for college and needs help paying for it will get help."
Nothing pleases her more than writing a check for $1,000 to cover books and other expenses. Ella has no idea how much money she's given away. She's more interested in helping others achieve. When a young employee was left paraplegic and depressed after a car accident, Ella gave her a computer and an office job and refused to let her drop out of college. Today, Rocio Magdaleno is a first-grade teacher.
"I don't know what happened to Mr. Miller," Ella says today, 48 years after sitting in his classroom. "But he was right."
*The United Negro College Fund name, logo and slogan herein used with permission of UNCF solely as a means to facilitate linkage to UNCF's website. Reader's Digest use of UNCF's name, logo or slogan for this purpose does not constitue or imply any affiliation with UNCF or the endorsement or approval by UNCF of our products or services or the content of this website. Reader's Digest is solely responsible for the content of this website and the products and services advertised herin.
In honor of Ella Avery-Smothers, Reader's Digest Foundation awarded $100,000 grant to the United Negro College Fund.
|silvia on 16 February 2012 ,05:22 |
|rabia on 12 November 2010 ,22:02 |
truly inspirational !!
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