Tuesday, February 8, 2011

You Never Know

I went to his funeral last week. He was 89 when it just got too much—too many things wrong with him. He just finally let go and slipped away into the mystery. He taught English literature and writing in my college in Birmingham for years and years. I never had him for a class back there—but I knew him, talked to him. And when I came back to Birmingham I would see him from time to time. Little man, sharp wit, smart. He influenced I don’t know how many students. If you would see a picture under the word teacher in the dictionary—his photo would have been perfect.

At his funeral I learned something I did not know. When he first came to Birmingham in the early fifties he was horrified by the racism that was ever-present. Of course the college was all white. The drinking fountains said white and colored. On the busses blacks rode in the back. Injustice was pervasive. So this man called together the English teachers and a few others to try to tackle the problem. The Trustees got wind of their meetings and warned the teachers to cool it or else. This teacher didn’t stop. He decided that there might be another way to help students think about our racial situation. He suggested to the English faculty that no student would leave their English classes without reading Alan Paton’s Cry the Beloved Country. That book dealt with apartheid in South Africa and was a beautifully written book about that struggle.

As someone told that story at the funeral I remembered when I first read that book in school and what an influence it made on my life. It’s been well over fifty years since I had that course and read Paton’s book. But it’s still in my bookcase after all these years. Maybe I kept it because it became, for me, a hinge-turning moment in my understanding of racial discrimination. I didn’t know that a little man, a teacher in our school had opened the door in a closed society for a great many of us. We never, ever know when we drop a pebble in the stream how very far the ripples may go.


  1. Thanks for posting - I took a course in World Lit under Mr. Mitchell in the mid 1970's when I was in college. A great teacher and supportive of students. I didn't know this bit of information, however. Reading it now, though, it all makes sense knowing his character and his passion.

  2. "He just finally let go and slipped away into the mystery."
    I aspire to write like that. A friend of ours here in SC recently died. Charles Rabon. Remember him?