"Jim," a woman asked at one of my book talks, "do you remember me?"
Her face seemed familiar, but I couldn’t place the name.
“It’s Miss Neil,” she said, “from Knollwood.”
Of course! Miss Neil, my second-grade homeroom teacher at Knollwood Elementary School in Decatur, Ga. She had come to hear me speak about “The Class of ’65” at the Atlanta Athletic Club. I’ve done many book talks this fall – and I’ll be blogging about some of them – but this was one of the best ones, in large part because someone who helped teach me to read and write came to show her support for one of her students.
She’s Mary Virginia Shores now and retired from teaching. The color photo shows us together at the book club; the black-and-white one above is our class picture from 1962-’63. Miss Neil is at the back, while I’m on the front row, fourth kid from the right, trying hard to stand out with some silly pose.
Seeing Miss Neil made me think about all the things that were going on in the South during my second-grade year – things that I had no clue about. While we were sitting in her classroom, Ole Miss erupted in violence over integration, Martin Luther King Jr. was locked up in Alabama and wrote his eloquent “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” and Bull Connor’s police dogs were unleashed on demonstrators in that city in brutal scenes that shocked America.
Closer to home, the standoff over segregation in Albany was entering its second year and the protests were about to move up the road to Americus, where Koinonia was still being boycotted and its teenagers were still being harassed at Americus High School. Greg Wittkamper, the hero of my book, was about to begin his junior year – and things were going to get very hot for him.
We talked about all this at the Atlanta Athletic Club, where I spoke in a room facing the impossibly green golf course, just down the hall from the trophies and mementoes of the Bobby Jones Room. Most of the 30 or so people in my audience had read the book, and they posed thoughtful questions.
One woman raised her hand and simply wanted everyone to know how much she admired one character from the book: Gladys Crabb (at left), Greg’s senior English teacher, who was sympathetic to him and listened to him talk about his troubles during the worst of his persecution. When Greg’s classmates wanted to reconcile with him decades later, they knew just whom to contact: Mrs. Crabb, who put them in touch with him. She was still teaching her students 40 years after they had graduated. And because of teachers like Miss Neil, I was able to tell that story.
Thanks to the AAC Book Club and to Betty Marie Stewart, who invited me for what turned out to be a meaningful reunion of its own.