THE SUMMER OF 1972 It was a simple idea. We would teach children to read. The “we” was a group of St. Joseph High School students in Greenville, Miss. The year was 1972, four years after Martin Luther King, Jr. was killed and two years after the public schools in the Mississippi Delta had been integrated.
We modeled it after a similar program in Philadelphia, Pa. We even borrowed its name “Operation T.A.L.K.”—Teach A Little Kid. Our CYO advisors, Ronnie and Betty Sue Tubertini, helped us find an adult teacher to train us and to raise money for her salary, books and supplies. The Catholic church on the black side of town—the parishes had yet to be integrated—let us use their classrooms.
Twenty teenagers volunteered to give up six weeks of their summers. Many left Operation T.A.L.K. and went directly to our summer jobs. Kermit Duncan, an African-American high school football player, and I, lily-white, skinny sophomore, were in charge of recruiting students. We were given a list of third and fourth-graders that were having trouble reading.
Most of them were black. For two weeks, Kermit and I walked the black neighborhoods knocking on doors, meeting with parents and signing up kids. My parents worried about my safety. I had the “invincibility” of youth as my shield and I had Kermit, who helped me see beyond skin color.
I also got to see a part of Greenville that few of my peers ever did. I saw houses that weren’t much more than three rooms, including a closet-size bathroom. I saw parents struggling to clothe and feed their children and who wanted better for them. We weren’t always welcomed. There were plenty of words that reflected anger, frustration and distrust slung at us. Doors were slammed in our faces.
We eventually signed up 36 kids—34 black and two white children. The six weeks were tough. Some volunteers disappeared after a few days. We had communication issues that took a while to resolve. We had to build trust, but after a couple weeks the barriers began to fall.
All of us were forever changed. Our views on race had been challenged and all of us saw Greenville, the state of Mississippi, our nation and ourselves differently. We understood that each of us is different, but we came to relish those differences.
In the end, we learned much more than the children we taught. Those lessons I still keep close to my heart. They guide me today.