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8 Quick Questions for Deborah Roberts

Veteran journalist shines spotlight on teachers in new book

spinner image deborah roberts wearing black shirt with floral print on it, against light pink background
Heidi Gutman/ABC News

ABC News correspondent Deborah Roberts, 62, has curated a new collection of essays, Lessons Learned and Cherished: The Teacher Who Changed My Life, which includes stories from celebrities such as Oprah Winfrey, Jenna Bush Hager, Brook Shields, Octavia Spencer and Spike Lee. They share personal essays about how teachers inspired them, changed their lives and helped them achieve their success.

Which teacher changed your life?

I am a product of the Deep South. I came out of segregated schools through fourth grade. The next year, fifth grade, my English teacher was Mrs. Dorothy Hardy. Mrs. Hardy was a very prim, proper, classic Southern teacher — starch dresses, pantyhose, sensible shoes, white hair, nail polish that was red and impeccable — and she was very no-nonsense. She didn’t crack a smile. She set the bar high, and I wanted to rise to it. I really worked extra hard. One time she was going through the classroom and looking at papers, and she complimented mine: “You work really hard. You’re a smart girl. You’re going to go very far.” Something in me shifted. I thought, Wow, this teacher, who is very, very tough and demanding, thinks that I’ve got something on the ball. Right then, a light bulb went off. She ignited something in me, to want to be better, to want to be smarter, to want to be stronger. I credit that moment with setting me on a path. She represented excellence. I decided at that moment I wanted to reach for excellence.

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What was your motivation behind the book?

Like any journalist, of course, [I’m motivated by] what things spark a passion in me. What things am I noticing? Of course, during and after the pandemic, I was noticing teachers who were saying they felt disrespected, disregarded, discouraged. Not only did I think this is a great topic, but this is an opportunity to basically give teachers their due. This is a love letter in my view. It’s a reminder. I didn’t set out with some big noble purpose. I just thought it was a very interesting topic because every time I would talk to people, they would light up with stories about their teachers. I thought this might be a step towards having a national conversation to remind teachers that we treasure and value them, but also to remind us that we need to give teachers space and room to be who they can be and do what they can do for our children. And not to ask them to do all those extraordinary Herculean things that nobody ever set out to do as a teacher. Teachers should just be given the space to be mentors and guides and inspirations. Hopefully, if nothing else, this will ignite a conversation.

Which celebrity’s story surprised you or touched you the most?

spinner image words lessons learned and cherished in gold with red pencil beneath it, surrounded by green leaves on book cover; words the teacher who changed my life in a blueish color under that
Roberts’ new book features celebrity essays honoring inspirational teachers.
Penguin Random House

Will Reeve, son of Christopher and Dana Reeve — who I’ve known for a very long time because I worked with his mom, Dana, years ago —  surprised me in a way, because I didn’t really know his story. I just reached out to him because I ran into him at Good Morning America one day and I thought, Huh, a much younger person than some of the others I’d interviewed recently. I just was sort of going along and taking the notes when we were talking, but when he told me the story about his teacher, Mr. Barrett, who essentially was kind of a surrogate parent when he was losing both of his parents, I just stopped dead in my tracks and I had to fight back tears, because who knew a teacher could not only have that role of inspiring you, but also kind of stand in the breach and leave an impression because he did that monumental thing that you needed at that moment to help you deal with a loss of a parent. So that one really caught me off guard in an emotional way. Oprah just gave me such joy because she was so generous with her time, talking about Mrs. Duncan who many of us had heard her talk about on her show over the years. But she dug a little deeper, and when she told me the story about seeing Mrs. Duncan in the grocery store as a kid [and thought] … teachers go grocery shopping. I laughed out loud, and it just was a pleasant moment, because we can all relate to seeing our teachers outside of the building and feeling almost like you just met Santa Claus.

What genre do you enjoy reading?

I like to read historical fiction. I like the fictionalized ideas of characters, but I love when there’s a little history peppered in. I loved The Personal Librarian, where you learned about J.P. Morgan’s librarian. This was a real story even though they had to fictionalize situations. ... I like escapism — any book that takes you on a journey, particularly things that center around women and the complex lives that we lead. I’m not hugely big on nonfiction, but occasionally there is a story that will grab me. I’ve been fortunate enough at Good Morning America to do a lot of our book club picks. That’s been so great because it pushes me to read novels that I might not have even thought about.

Do you remember the first book that you ever read and loved?

I don’t, but I do remember the first book that ever struck a chord with me, Whistle for Willie. It was the first book I read that had a Black central character. I think it is still one of the most popular children’s books to this day. I just remember that because, wow, I had never seen a Black kid featured in a book before.

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Did you ever consider becoming a teacher?

You know what, I didn’t. And I think only because when I was growing up in small town Perry, Georgia, [where] that was one of the key professions that young women would turn to — which is fabulous — I wanted to do something different. I got in my mind that I wanted to do something outside of what people expected. My great aunt was a teacher, my uncle was a principal, so I certainly had great educators in my life and had great reverence for them, but I just decided I wanted to do something off the beaten path. I also knew that I had a gift for gab, which got me in trouble in school a lot. “Deborah is a good student, but she talks too much.” I got that all the time on my report card.

Speaking of teachers, do you watch Abbott Elementary?

When I first talked about [compiling] this book, people said, “Oh my gosh, Abbott Elementary, Abbott Elementary. You’ve got to watch it.” It is so great. Sheryl Lee Ralph, of course — who is an old friend of mine — she talks a lot about her parents [in the book]. It's just such a good show, and it reminds us what it is to have caring educators in the world.

Your youngest child, Nick, started college this year. How is “empty nesting”?

It was hard. I’m going to tell you, it was harder than I thought. I made all these jokes about, “Thank goodness, we’re going to have a quiet house for a change.” Or, “Once we have all the kids out of the house that would just be so great.” I didn’t expect to just boo-hoo as much as I did on the way home from dropping him off. I cried in the car. Al [husband Al Roker] and I got home, and the house truly was truly quiet. I remember going up the stairs and walking past his room sniffling and crying. I just didn’t realize there would really be an emptiness to this empty nest, but that said, we have been able to very spontaneously get up and go out to dinner or maybe do something on the weekend without thinking, Oh, do you think Nick is going to have dinner? Should we make dinner for him? It’s been kind of freeing also to have time for just the two of us. So it’s a mixed bag. I miss him terribly, and every time he comes home for a break, I have to do that all over again — get accustomed to him going. People on my social media — because I’ve been so transparent —  have said so often to me, “It never gets easier, but you know what? This is what you raised them for. You want them to fly.” It is true, and that’s been comforting, hearing from people who commiserate with me and encourage me.

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