▶ Watch Video: School Matters: Grammy winner J. Ivy praises high school teacher for believing in him

Thirty years before bright stage lights and sold-out shows became commonplace for Grammy-winning poet J. Ivy, he was a high school student struggling in the wake of his parents’ divorce, searching for someone to believe in him. That support came in the form of an English teacher who changed his life. 

James Ivy Richardson II had just moved from Chicago’s South Side to the city’s suburbs with his mother and two brothers. Back then, he was an insecure teenager walking the halls of Rich Central High School. 

Everything changed when he met Paula Argue, who one day told students to write a poem for homework. 

“I wrote this poem about the game we’ve all played about the cloud looking like this, like a waterfall, looked like a weeping willow,” Ivy said. 

He got an “A” on the assignment, and Argue wanted him to perform in a talent show. He was resistant at first, but Argue insisted, and soon, he was performing in front of a crowd.

“She made me come to this space and perform and just bare my soul in front of friends, family, strangers,” Ivy said. “And that day I received a standing ovation. … My whole life changed in that moment.” 

Paula Argue (left) and J. Ivy (right).

CBS News

By recognizing Ivy’s potential, Argue empowered him to unlock his skills. He later attended Illinois State University, where he was known on campus as “The Poet,” and shortened his name to J. Ivy. He started appearing on the local radio, and soon became a regular fixture on Russell Simmons’ popular HBO series “Def Poetry Jam.” By the early 2000s, Ivy was collaborating with stars like Kanye West, Jay Z and John Legend. Global acclaim and recognition followed. 

“(Argue) saw something in me that I did not see … Because of that, I’ve been able to live my dream,” Ivy said. 

In 2022, Ivy recorded his sixth album, “The Poet Who Sat by the Door.” The first track, called “Listen,” is an homage to Argue and references her by name. For “CBS Mornings, Ivy had the opportunity to perform the piece live in front of Argue, and tell her how much she changed his life.

“I wonder what would’ve happened if you hadn’t spoken, just looking at how everything has lined up since then,” Ivy said.

Argue said the impact has worked both ways. 

“I need you to know that by you sharing with me, the impact I’ve had, is that you affirm my purpose,” Argue told her former student. 

Ivy also paid tribute to Argue in front of the whole music world earlier this year. In February, he won the Grammy Award for Best Spoken Word Poetry Album, a category he helped create. In his speech, Ivy wasted no time giving a shout-out to Argue, crediting her for giving him “a chance” and telling her he loved her “so much.” 

“To have the opportunity to not only acknowledge you, but acknowledge the power of a teacher, it’s one of the proudest moments of my life,” Ivy said. 

“We all have the capacity to be able to let somebody know, like, ‘Hey, thank you, and look at me now,'” Argue said.

The student and teacher ended their conversation with positive hopes for each other. Argue said she hoped Ivy would “continue to listen, continue to love and continue to inspire.” 

Ivy said he hoped his former teacher would “continue to shine (her) light and … continue to use (her) power to be a beautiful force that this world absolutely needs.”