Barbara O’Berry’s opus

Published 8:26 pm Saturday, July 27, 2013

By Dennis Edwards

She couldn’t have been much older than we were. And she certainly hadn’t been married very long.

Barbara O’Berry was the new English teacher at Suffolk High School. It was my good fortune to wind up in her class in the fall of 1972. She’d come in with an eager group of young teachers, including varsity football coach Mike Debranski and baseball coach Darnell Moore, whose afro was the envy of all of us in pursuit of the perfect shape of coolness. Ms. Dale was our government teacher. Hers was a firm determination that, above all else, we get it right.

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But it was Mrs. O’Berry who brought my writing interest into focus. At one time I had the feeling she didn’t realize she’d helped me find my niche. But I now think she did and just didn’t let me know.

Grammar was a major puzzle. There was a tremendous desire to master it. But I knew of no method to conquer its unique madness.

Enter Mrs. O’Berry. She brought an understated command and appreciation for literature that changed my life. She allowed us to peer into the minds and methods of literary giants.

We lived American life through poetry, short stories, novels and every other kind of written expression. The effect was that grammar suddenly started to make sense. Words and their meanings came alive, and so did humanity and the essence of things that go bump in the night and often in daylight.

Barbara O’Berry, now the librarian at Nansemond-Suffolk Academy, actually pulled literary observations out of us, forced us to think about the meanings of life and gave me a seat at the short story table. We learned how to read between the lines in her class and haven’t stopped since.

Along with teachers like Ida Sullivan, Fran Alwood (who convinced my mother to let me pursue journalism in college), coach Debranski (I always liked the way he pronounced my name — he seemed to give it some thought) and Bill Peachy (we had to admire how his daughter Susan never let us know she was the principal’s daughter).

But Mrs. O’Berry was our quiet heart. She took us seriously, she listened to our thoughts and feelings. She pushed me to think about humanity and the effects emotions have on human events. She was kind enough to accept us for the individuals we were.

She even made an effort to try and understand my handwriting. I like to think of it as an art form, a special kind of hieroglyphic. Maybe that’s why she and Mrs. Dale smiled with relief when I enrolled in Ida Sullivan’s typing class.

But their gratitude is nothing compared to mine. The foundation laid by Mrs. O’Berry in English prepared me for a life of covering the highest levels of government, politics, murder, mayhem and mass confusion.

It was in her class I came to understand that “Why” is the most important question the journalist will ask. Who, what, where, how and when are necessary. But “why” ties us to the immortals.

It is in the realm of the whys of life that we come to understand the genius of Shakespeare, the clarity of Hemingway and O. Henry’s sense of irony.

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen the elements of literary tragedy unfold in my life, as well as in the nation’s capital, city council chambers or in the state legislatures of Virginia, Missouri, North Carolina, Michigan and Maryland.

Mrs. O’Berry taught us to appreciate the range of human motivation.

She may not play an instrument. I doubt she sings much. But in us she started a symphony of appreciation for the complicated nature of humanity. She taught us to see not only the obvious but also the power of an open mind.

I am so grateful and so much the better for the sight of it.

Dennis Edwards is an Emmy Award-winning television news reporter and anchor, He is a 1974 graduate of Suffolk High School. Email him at dennisredwards@verizon.net.