Williamsville North English teacher Lisa Carney didn't expect anything when she submitted her name for a chance to win a seat at film legend Sidney Poitier's dinner table for a "Dinner of a Lifetime" on "The Oprah Winfrey Show."
Carney has been a fan of Winfrey for about 17 years, calling her "a catalyst for moving people to action on issues that they care about." And ever since Carney read Poitier's memoir, "The Measure of a Man," she has kept it close to her. "I was surprised at how many things I had in common with an 80-year-old man who grew up on Cat Island [in the Bahamas] and was a recipient of an Academy Award. I think I felt a kinship with this person, who, like me, is navigating his way through life and trying to leave the world a better place," she said.
Poitier's memoir had been an Oprah Book Club choice. When Carney saw on Oprah's Web site that she was holding a dinner to honor Poitier and that fans could submit letters for a chance to be a guest, she entered by e-mail two hours before the deadline "because the book had resonated so much with me." With a limit of 200 words, Carney simply wrote how she had picked up the book as a mother to learn what had made such an incredible man tick and pass that along to her sons, and that the more of the book she read, the more she actually learned about herself.
When she learned she was one of seven guests picked to attend the dinner party, she was overwhelmed. "I was literally in a fog for the next week," she said.
On Feb. 27, Carney flew to California for her big moment. She was electrified to be sitting at the same table as two of her biggest idols. "Mr. Poitier has this amazing ability to make you feel like you are the only one in the room," she said. "His aura is one of honor and compassion, a feeling I would love to be able to emulate in my classroom." She said the other dinner guests were "amazing people. In fact, I kept looking around feeling completely humbled to have been included in a group of such kind human beings. Not only was everyone at the table very accomplished in their field, the way they give back to society outside of their jobs is really inspiring. We liked each other so much that we are still in contact via e-mail and planning to meet as a group this fall."
"The book itself is like finding a journal from someone in the generation before you, so meeting with Mr. Poitier was like having a conversation with your grandfather who is espousing the lessons he learned along the way. I've spent a lot of time since the dinner reflecting on things that he said and trying to incorporate them into my own life."
Once she returned to Buffalo and the episode finally aired on March 28, she felt excited and relieved. "I think the show captured the tone of both the book and the dinner," she said. Best of all is that the show has brought attention to Poitier's book. "I think the biggest compliment is that many students and colleagues are now reading the book," she said.
OTHER BOOKS LISA CARNEY LOVES:
Harper Lee, "To Kill a Mockingbird"
Judy Blue, "Blubber"
Margaret Atwood's, "The Handmaid's Tale"
Alice Walker, "The Color Purple"
Jonathan Franzen, "The Corrections"
John Irving, "A Prayer for Owen Meany"
MORE ON SIDNEY POITIER:
He was the first African-American to win an Oscar for a lead role, Best Actor in 1964 for "Lilies of the Field"
Other movies: "Guess Who's Coming to Dinner?", "In the Heat of the Night", "To Sir With Love." Find more about the dinner at www.oprah.com/obc_classic/featbook/moam/guess/guess_dinner_350_101.jhtml.
Jason Silverstein is a sophomore at Williamsville North.