From Pre-Med To Teacher: A New Kind Of Healing

Oct 30, 2011
Originally published on November 30, 2011 5:17 pm

Ayodeji Ogunniyi is an English teacher at Thornton Township High School in Harvey, Ill. His family came to the U.S. from Nigeria in 1990. His father worked as a cab driver in Chicago, and he always wanted his son to become a doctor. But while Ogunniyi was studying pre-med in college, his father was murdered on the job. At that point, he says, his life changed course.

Ogunniyi, 24, says it was 11 p.m. when his family got the news that his father had been murdered, his body found in an alley.

"I remember yelling 'No!' really loud, and my brother was going haywire, and he punched a hole in the wall," he says, "and then my mother just ... she started to pull her hair, and she scratched her face."

The murderers — ages 18, 19 and 22 — were found within four days.

"I was angry. I was very, very angry," Ogunniyi says. "I didn't want to retaliate. I just wanted to just ask them why. What happens to a person? Where do they get lost to become murderers?"

Ogunniyi was working at an after-school program at the time, tutoring young people with backgrounds and environments similar to those of the murderers. He recalls one 16-year-old student who stormed out of class when all the students had to read.

"I went out to talk to him, and he just broke down. He said, 'It's hard for me to read,'" Ogunniyi says. "There are many people that cry because they're hurt, they've been neglected — but to cry because you couldn't read, that spoke volumes to me."

Ogunniyi helped get the student enrolled in some other programs. When the boy started to read, he says, "it just was like this gift that money can't buy for him."

"By me giving that to him, I totally forgot about the pain of the murder, and I wanted to continue to give more of what I had — to heal," he says. "It just dawned on me: Everybody, at some point, sits in a classroom. That could be the foundation for everything else."

"That's when I said that whatever happened to my father is not going to be in vain," he says. "I'm going to follow my heart and become a teacher."

Audio produced for Weekend Edition by Brian Reed.

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AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

Each month this school year, we're bringing your stories from teachers across the country. It's part of the StoryCorps National Teachers Initiative. Ayodeji Ogunniyi, is an English teacher at Thornton High School in Harvey, Illinois. His family came to the U.S. from Nigeria in 1990. Ayodeji's father worked a cab driver in Chicago, and he always wanted his son to become a doctor. But while Ayodeji was studying pre-med in college, his father was murdered on the job. At that point, Ayodeji tells us, his life changed course.

AYODEJI OGUNNIYI: Eleven o'clock that night, the knock came. They told us that our father was found in an alley and he was murdered. I remember yelling no really loud, and my brother was going haywire, and he punched a hole in the wall. And then my mother just, she started to pull her hair, and she scratched her face. They found the murderers in four days. They were 18, 19 and 22. I was angry. I was very, very angry. I didn't want to retaliate. I just wanted to just ask them why. What happens to a person? Where do they get lost to become murderers?

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OGUNNIYI: At the time, I was tutoring at an afterschool program for some extra money. And these kids came from the same conditions that the people that murdered my father came from. A student came to the afterschool program, was probably around 16 years old. We were doing something where we everyone had to read out loud. He stormed out the classroom and I went out to talk to him. And he just broke down. He said it's hard for me to read. There are many people that cry because they're hurt, they've been neglected, but to cry because you couldn't read, that spoke volumes to me. So, we got him in some other programs and he would start to read. And it just was like this gift that money can't buy for him. And by me giving that to him, I totally forgot about the pain of the murder. And I wanted to continue to give more of what I had to heal. It just dawned on me: everybody at some point sits in a classroom. That could be the foundation for everything else. And so that's when I said that whatever happened to my father is not going to be in vain. I'm going to follow my heart and become a teacher.

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CORNISH: Ayodeji Ogunniyi at StoryCorps in Chicago. His interview, along with all National Teachers Initiative interviews, will be archived in the Library of Congress.

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CORNISH: You're listening to WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.